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FGCU practices in the Cowboys Stadium
FGCU practices in the Cowboys Stadium: FGCU practices in the Cowboys Stadium Thursday in preparation for a sweet 16 game against the Florida Gators (Video by Andrew West/news-press.com)
Sherwood Brown soaks in the scene during Thursday's practice round. / Andrew West/news-press.com

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Get in-depth coverage as FGCU gets ready to take on Florida on Friday in the South Regional semifinals at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Their eyes widened, their mouths dropped and their cell phone cameras captured the moment cavernous Cowboys Stadium officially welcomed the FGCU men’s basketball team to the Sweet 16.

“I walked right to the center just to try to get the perfect view of everything,” sophomore guard Bernard Thompson said. “I’m circling around the court thinking, ‘Wow, this place is actually bigger than I expected.’”

The Eagles held a 50-minute open practice session Thursday afternoon before a crowd of about 4,000 onlookers, close to double the team’s average attendance of 2,300 this season at Alico Arena.

“It was amazing to see all those people out there watching us practice,” Thompson said.

There were no signs of nervousness from the FGCU players in advance of tonight’s 9:57 showdown with No. 3 seed Florida.

The crowd, most of which included fans sporting the colors of the Gators and the other two teams in the NCAA South Regional — Kansas and Michigan — exploded when FGCU put on a five-minute dunking competition. The Eagles ended their practice with an impromptu dance routine that concluded with junior guard Christophe Varidel playfully carrying Thompson off the floor.

“This isn’t an uptight group of guys,” said senior forward Eddie Murray, a Bishop Verot High School graduate. “We get focused when it comes to game time. We’re out there having fun but at the same time we know our game plan.”

If the reception at Thursday’s practice is any indication, everyone at Cowboys Stadium not wearing a Gators shirt will be pulling for FGCU tonight.

“Everyone seems to be an Eagle around here,” FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw said. “That’s great. Because of the visibility that we’ve gotten worldwide, we’re enjoying a lot of support.

“It’s great when we have our FGCU garb on and people I don’t know are giving me high-fives.”

As for the crowd expected to descend on 80,000-seat Cowboys Stadium tonight, FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh said the bigger the better.

“Our guys have a tendency to love the challenge and they feed off the energy,” he said. “We play better in front of big crowds.

“Hopefully (tonight) will be the same way.”

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