|Fla. Gulf Coast||81|
|San Diego St.||71|
PHILADELPHIA — It was almost impossible not to be swept up by Florida Gulf Coast’s overnight celebrity.
The Eagles crashed the NCAA Tournament and immediately became the cool kids at the party by beating second-seeded Georgetown Friday.
It happened so quickly, it was hard for them to even process.
They threw up enough lobs and threw down enough dunks to make them stars on “SportsCenter” and light up all social media networks to the point that people were impersonating them on Twitter.
“The media thing’s been kind of crazy,” said point guard Brett Comer. “There’s plenty of fake Sherwood Browns out there. Everybody wants to be Sherwood Brown.”
Every detail of their underdog story was too good to be true, from the coach and his supermodel wife to the school and its middle-of-nowhere campus.
One person who hadn’t caught the fever was San Diego State guard Jamaal Franklin.
The only thing Franklin knew about FGCU, he said, was “it’s in Florida.”
He knows better now.
The Eagles shot the lights out (56 percent), owned the inside (44 points in the paint), caused chaos (22 points off 17 turnovers), and became the first No. 15 seed to dance its way into the Sweet 16 by bouncing the seventh-seeded Aztecs, 81-71, Sunday.
The previous six No. 15s to win their opener had lost by a combined 90 points in the round of 32. Florida Gulf Coast won its second straight tournament game by double digits.
“We just wanted to make history, really,” said guard Bernard Thompson. “We live for moments like this.”
Thompson scored a team-high 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting and Brown put up 17, missing just two of eight attempts. FGCU (26-10) put five players in double figures. Comer dished out a career-high 14 assists to go with 10 points.
In puppy love with the underdog, the Wells Fargo Center crowd was overwhelmingly more FGCU blue than it was two days earlier and the Eagles fed off it.
“We wanted to get the crowd behind us,” Comer said. “When we have that type of energy, we’re a hard team to beat.”
The Eagles’ win set up an unexpected intrastate battle with third-seeded Florida in the South Regional semifinals at Cowboy Stadium. On the way out of Philadelphia, Thompson gave the next stop on FGCU’s tour a warning.
“Dunk City is coming to Arlington,” Thompson said.
The Eagles had enough dunks against the Aztecs to fill a highlight reel.
On one, Chase Fieler pulled the lever on DeShawn Stephens with 1:54 left in the first half, driving hard down the baseline and exploding on the first thing he saw under the rim.
He looked down and shot Stephens a cold glare. Whistled for a foul, all Stephens could do was look up from the floor.
Earlier, Comer weaved some alley-oop magic. Pounding the ball in the paint, Comer lofted the ball above the rim to a place only Eric McKnight could get to.
McKnight threw it down with one hand, flexed for the crowd, then sprinted the other way like a heat-seeking missile and swatted what would have been a Stephens finger roll.
The same way the Eagles flushed the Hoyas out of the postseason with a 21-2 second-half run, FGCU went on a 17-0 rush after the break Sunday, turning fast breaks into high-speed chases and leaving the Aztecs (23-11) dazed. In two games, they’ve outscored their opponents, 101-82, in the second half.
“They just killed us in transition,” said San Diego State’s Chase Tapley. “We just didn’t get back.”
Once the buzzer sounded on their season, the leaders of the Aztecs walked across the floor to shake hands with the players who ended it.
It wasn’t that long ago that they were in FGCU’s position, an unsuspecting, uninvited school sneaking into the Sweet 16 two years ago.
Franklin and Tapley found Brown and reminded him to cherish the run his team is on.
“I just told him, ‘Don’t stop now. Keep going. Just keep rolling,’ ” Tapley said.
As the Eagles celebrated at midcourt, Franklin forced himself to watch, hands on hips, from the end of the Aztecs’ bench.
“Those guys we played against right now are just like us,” Franklin said. “They all love each other and they all play together. They just want to win. You could see it at the end, a lot of teams win games and just leave the court. They embraced it.”
Then, finally, Franklin walked off toward the tunnel, surely knowing a little more about the small school from Fort Myers than he did before.
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.