Freshman Latson exceeding expectations, leading FSU resurgence

Ta’Niya Latson drives to the basket. Florida State Athletics photo.

For every match up, it’s always the same.

Before she takes the court, Ta’Niya Latson goes through her usual pregame ritual: she takes a nap, prays, and talks to her mother. Also, if it is a big game, she will listen to R&B music. With the matchups she knows they are going to win, rap music is usually the loop of choice.

But no matter who the Florida State Seminoles are facing, the standout freshman guard always comes in with tunnel vision. Seemingly out of nowhere, Latson has truly come out swinging in her college career, averaging 21.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, three assists, 1.7 steals and 0.7 blocks per game. She has scored 30 or more points in six games and 20+ in 17 games, while only scoring in single-digits one time.

Latson currently leads the ACC in scoring, and is eighth in the nation in that category, while her team leads the conference and is sixth nationally as a whole in points per game, bolstered by her contributions.

Coach Brooke Wyckoff said the young star’s wisdom belies her years.

“I’ve been impressed with her poise throughout all of it, her confidence level and the way that she has been able to be a phenomenal teammate while taking on a big scoring load and having to learn defense at this level,” Wyckoff said.

Latson has certainly made history in her debut season, as she is the first freshman ever in ACC women’s basketball to lead the conference in scoring, and is just the 10th Seminole player to make 200 field goals in one year.

There have certainly been phenomenal freshmen on the college landscape before. Two years ago there was UConn’s Paige Bueckers (20 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals per game) and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark (26.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks per game), with the former being the first freshman to win the AP Player of the Year award.

Looking back further, there was Maya Moore in 2008 (17.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game), Tamika Catchings in 1998 (18.2 points, eight rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.6 blocks per game) and Cheryl Miller in 1983 (20.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 3.5 steals and 2.4 blocks per game).

Latson, in terms of what she is doing in her first year in college, is in good company when compared to two of the greatest college basketball players of all time: Sabrina Ionescu in 2017 and Kelsey Plum  in 2014. The former averaged 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.3 steals during her freshman season, and was the No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA draft. Meanwhile, Plum ended up being the NCAA Division Ⅰ women’s basketball’s all-time leading scorer by the time she graduated, after averaging 20.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and one steal per game in her first year.

But her own statistics aside, Latson says she’s a work in progress.

“I feel like I can go to the basket at will,” she said. “My shot is still under development. I feel like I need to get that pull-up and that mid-range. I feel like that’s a lost art and I need to grow in that.”

Latson has received her flowers and props both in the ACC and nationally, as she has been named ACC rookie and player of the week nine and three times, respectively, and was named to the NCAA starting five during the second week of the regular season. She also was recently named to the Naismith player of the year midseason watch list, and three times was declared the national freshman of the week by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

But despite the nods, and leading Florida State back into the top 25 rankings this season, Latson still flies under the radar for a player with her production.

The Seminoles aren’t a traditional blue blood program like UConn, Tennessee, Stanford, Notre Dame and Baylor. Because of this – and especially after the retirement of longtime head coach Sue Semrau last year – Latson and her teammates have surprised the nation with their re-emergence this season.

Ta’Niya Latson shoots. Farell Shine photo.

The Miami native has played a big role in returning the program to glory after choosing Florida State over NC State and Texas, due to her wanting to be closer to home. She attended Westlake High School in Atlanta, Georgia, for three years and won three state titles from 2019 to 2021, and one national title her junior year. 

In the final two games of their national championship run, she scored 26 and 31 points, respectively, and was the co-MVP of the championship game. It was a huge jump from the state title game during her freshman year, where she came off the bench and only scored 2 points in six minutes.

“She came back her junior year and there was no fear,” Westlake coach Hilda Hankerson said. “She was one of the greatest assets on our defensive side of the ball, and on our offensive side of the ball.”

Being an elite two-way threat, Latson takes the most pride in her defense since she started playing basketball as a little kid. She has an above-average jump shot that she has been working on since not just her days at Westlake, but especially when she transferred to the American Heritage School in Plantation, Florida, for her senior season.

At that school, Latson was able to not only continue to work on her jump shot and defense, but show off what makes her stand out from other college freshmen: her leadership.

On her first day of practice at American Heritage, Latson helped out a freshman that was having trouble catching passes from her by talking to her directly and instilling confidence. Latson also celebrated more when she had an assist than when she scored, and she served as an extension of head coach Greg Farias as a team captain – especially when she would exhort players who weren’t working hard during practice.

“She’s not a rah-rah, yelling-in-your-face type, but she was so effective that when she had to speak, she would and she would get in her teammates’ butt at halftime…because she practiced and led so hard by example, everybody else followed,” Farias said.

She had a lot of hype coming out of high school, as she was an All-American in 2022, as well as the winner of the Florida Dairy Farmers Miss Basketball Award. She was ESPN’s No. 1-ranked shooting guard with a 14th-overall ranking.

“Just in terms of her ability to be poised and handle such a big responsibility on the court and all the accolades at a young age, she really has a mentality that is beyond her years in that regard,” Wyckoff said.

Latson’s humility has helped her to handle the spotlight of playing in a Power 5 conference for one of the nation’s top-ranked programs, and the pressure that comes with being a highly-touted recruit. She is very confident in her abilities as a basketball player and is careful not to let the confidence devolve into excessive pride.

“I didn’t expect it to come this early honestly, but I’ve just been playing and letting God guide me through it, so I’m blessed to be in this position and I hope that I can continue to keep going,” Latson said.

With four games left in the regular season, the Seminoles are in position to get a bye through the first round of the ACC Tournament in a couple weeks. They could also potentially jump up to being a No. 3 seed, and extend it all the way to the second round with their upcoming opponents being Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Clemson, which are all ranked lower in conference.

Latson also has a chance to make history by being the first freshman to win the ACC player of the year award. She will have competition from the reigning winner, Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley, as well as Olivia Miles from Notre Dame, Hailey Van Lith of Louisville, Duke’s Celeste Taylor and Diamond Johnson from NC State. Latson is the top candidate for the national freshman of the year award.

If she were able to win both trophies, it would be a true testament to her faith in herself, her hard work, her tenacity, and her ability to ground herself in reality. Teammate Sara Bejedi said Latson has far exceeded expectations.

“As a freshman, some go through adversity and some don’t, but this team has been great to Ta’Niya, and she stepped up as a leader,” Bejedi said. “Some individuals can take it and just do whatever, and take it for granted. Ta’Niya took it with pride and poise, and is leading the team as a freshman.”

Latson and Florida State take on Georgia Tech Sunday.