Aztecs can't run with FGCU, lose in NCAAs 81-71
The Aztecs, like the Hoyas two nights earlier, could only watch Florida Gulf Coast celebrate an upset win at the NCAA tournament. This was an historic one - the 81-71 victory made the Eagles the first No. 15 seed to reach the NCAA tournament's round of 16.
And just like in FGCU's win over second-seeded Georgetown, it was a big second-half run that sent the Eagles on their way to some postgame dancing.
In its first-ever NCAA tournament game on Friday, the Atlantic Sun champion busted brackets everywhere by taking control with a 21-2 run in the second half.
It went much the same way against seventh-seeded San Diego State.
This time the run was 17-0 and Sherwood Brown, who was saddled early in the second half with foul trouble, had eight of the first 10 points of it. When it was over the Eagles led 71-52 with 4:19 to play and the only decisions left were how the players and fans were going to celebrate.
''They're a good basketball team. They have proved that all season long, and obviously they proved that again today,'' San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. ''We put keys to the game, and I told them the No. 1 key to the game is runs. That's been a theme of ours all year. ... Obviously they went on the run on us when it was 54-52. We contributed a little bit to it, but they did it. They ran on us and I thought we got anxious, gambled a little bit, and that added to them running downhill. But they are to be complimented for how they played and for the momentum that they will carry into the Sweet 16.''
The next opponent for the upstart state school will be the system's flagship university, third-seeded Florida, on Friday night in the South Regional semifinal in Dallas.
''We tried to scrimmage them early in the season in the preseason,'' FGCU coach Andy Enfield said. ''Now we get our shot.''
San Diego State, which was trying to reach the round of 16 for the second time in three years, made the third round with a 70-55 victory over Oklahoma.
FGCU presented a different problem, one the Aztecs couldn't handle for that 7 1-2 minute run. The Eagles ran and dunked, taking advantage of misses and turnovers to get the game going at a pace even took quick for San Diego State.
''They just ran the floor like they did the last game, and that's what we preached on, and they just made plays toward the end of the game,'' said the Aztecs' Chase Tapley.
Bernard Thompson had 23 points and Sherwood Brown added 17 for FGCU, the 16-year-old school in just its second season being eligible for postseason play.
Jamal Franklin, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds for the Aztecs (23-11), spoke with Brown after the game.
''I just told him just keep being the leader that he is, make sure the ball is in his hands, make sure he does what he has to do to keep his team rolling,'' said Franklin, the only player in Division I to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
The Eagles stick their tongues out after big baskets and they interact with the crowd throughout the game.
''They play with a swagger, and they have a right to do that,'' said Fisher, who knows about players with that attitude, having led the Fab Five to consecutive national championship games at Michigan. ''You can have that look and feel, but you have to compete and play to earn your spurs, and they've done that.''
In short, they showed a kind of joy that's often missing from high stakes, high drama games in March.
''We're all about having fun and also playing really hard and that's something we like to do, we like to get the crowd involved,'' said Brown, the A-Sun's player of the year. ''The whole crowd got behind us even if they are not from Fort Myers, or as I like to say, `Dunk City.'''
The notoriously tough Philly fans loved them back. One seated behind the FCGU bench held a sign - ''Fly, Eagles, Fly!'' - the motto of the NFL team that plays across the street from the Wells Fargo Center.
And after it was all over, the whole team joined in a bird dance that the players on the bench had been doing during the game.
''I know I can say for all the players, this was the biggest game for us. None of us have played on this stage,'' point guard Brett Comer said. ''We are blessed to be here.''
Comer, who didn't have as many lob passes for dunks as he did against the Hoyas, finished with 10 points and 14 assists, some of which resulted in dunks that had the crowd cheering and wanting more.
''We want to get out and run,'' Comer said. ''We're just having so much fun.''
FGCU even unleashed another offensive weapon. Christophe Varidel, a native of Switzerland, hit two big 3s early for the Eagles and finished with 11 points after going scoreless against Georgetown.
The Eagles shot 55.9 percent for the game (33 of 59), including going 7 of 18 from 3-point range.
The Aztecs finished at 44.3 percent (27 of 61) and were 8 of 23 from beyond the arc.
''They ran. They ran hard, they ran consistent, and they ran effectively,'' Fisher said. ''They're playing with a kind of momentum that they have earned.''