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FGCU on loss to Florida: We still made history
FGCU on loss to Florida: We still made history: The Eagles are already looking forward to next season, even though they're losing star senior Sherwood Brown. Gators Coach Billy Donavan shares his prediction for the breakthrough team.
Christophe Varidel, left, hides his emotions as FGCU ends its run in the NCAA tournament, falling 62-50 to Florida. / Kinfay Moroti/news-press.com

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ARLINGTON, Texas – The end of the line came not with a heart-breaking buzzer-beater by the other guys or last-second missed shot of their own.

No, when the dream season of mighty, unknown FGCU finally ended, it did so at the hands of its own torrent of turnovers and the stout defense of its big, bad older brother from up the road.

Florida, which was founded in 1853 and with whom 16-year-old FGCU has one of those love-hate relationships any sibling can understand, steadily knocked the Eagles from flight as if plucking their majestic plumage one proud feather at a time.

When it was done, the mood was one of disappointment, but not dejection. Sadness, but not despair. And maybe, somewhat strangely considering their unfettered confidence, a bit of inevitability.

The not-so-little-team-that-could had captured the imagination of its sport for more than a handful of delirious days, and for that they shed no tears.

“It’s a surreal feeling when you’re the underdog and you’re the talk in the nation. We did not plan that going in,” said FGCU Andy Enfield, whose team lost 62-50 Friday night to Florida inside an ostentatious football stadium that only underscored the absurdity of how high FGCU had flown.

“We planned to win a couple games in the tournament, as many as we could. Our plan wasn’t to be some great national story. But it was unbelievable to see the excitement and passion of not only our local community and the students but also on a national level. I’m very thankful for that.

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“Our players believed. And they accomplished something special.”

Fifteenth-seeded FGCU, which lost for the first time in eight games to finish only its second season with Division I postseason eligibility at 26-11, was unbowed in knocking off grinding-wheel-tough No. 2-seed Georgetown last Friday and track-star-fast No. 7-seed San Diego State on Sunday.

Those wins made FGCU only the seventh No. 15 seed ever to win an NCAA tournament game and historic first to reach the Sweet 16. Moreover, the Eagles’ aerial artistry captured the imagination of a nation that couldn’t get enough of once-derided FGC-Who nor snap up its freshly printed T-shirts fast enough.

In facing No. 3 seed Florida, though, before a heavily pro-underdog crowd of 40,639 in a South Region semifinal, FGCU ran up against an across-the-board defensive machine that shut down the Eagles’ pick-and-roll, flew to the corners to deny open shooters and never let Dunk City, as FGCU has come to be known, truly unfurl its thunder-and-lightning highlight show.

The win by the Gators (29-7), who growl some four hours north of the Eagles in Gainesville, sends the two-time national champions to the Elite Eight for the third straight year. Florida faces No. 4 seed Michigan, also 29-7 after its overtime defeat of top-seeded Kansas on Friday, back in the 80,000-seat, $1.3-billion home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at 2:20 p.m.

“I thought we did a great job of putting pressure and making those guys feel uncomfortable trying to get the ball up court, trying to run their sets,” said Florida senior guard Mike Rosario, who had a game-high 15 points while helping hold FGCU 23.5 points below its season average, which ranked 42nd in the nation.

“And I thought we did a great job on (FGCU point guard Brett) Comer as well, keeping him out of the paint so much. When he gets in there he’s effective, outside shooters, throwing lobs to the basket.”

Comer, the leading assist man from the Atlantic Sun Conference and 14th in the nation with 6.6 per game, averaged 12 assists in FGCU’s two wins last week in Philadelphia.

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The 6-foot-3 sophomore had seven assists Friday. But an old bugaboo, turnovers, resurfaced in the face of premiere perimeter pressure by Florida, which entered play second in the nation with only 53.8 points allowed per game.

Despite improving his assist-to-turnover ratio by more than 30 percent this season, Comer committed a season-worst nine giveaways Friday night. Five came in the first half, when Florida used a 16-0 run to turn a 24-14 deficit into a 30-24 lead it would never surrender.

“They did a great job of not (letting) me use the ball screen. They made me turn it down,” said Comer, who tried heaping blame for FGCU’s many miscues on his shoulders. “They hedged really hard on it. I didn’t make the right play out of it like I should have, and it affected us.”

FGCU has owned the second half of basketball games in recent weeks. The Eagles blitzed top-seeded A-Sun tournament host Mercer three weeks ago to become the fifth different FGCU team of its seven major sports to secure an NCAA tournament berth in only two seasons as a full-fledged D-I program.
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They also used dominant bursts of 21-2 and 17-0 against Georgetown and San Diego State, respectively, that won those games and wooed fans.

This time, it was Florida that was better out of the halftime break, using a 7-0 run in only 88 seconds opening the second half to widen to a 37-26 lead, forcing Enfield into a timeout.

“We didn’t have the energy we did in the other games,” said FGCU junior forward Chase Fieler, who buried a pair of 3-pointers from the top of the key to give FGCU a 15-4 early edge but added only six more points the rest of the night. “At halftime we tried to discuss it and get each other going.”

Fieler – who had four of FGCU’s 20 turnovers, the Eagles’ most fumbles since giving the ball away that many times in an 87-78 overtime home loss to Lipscomb on Jan. 17 – wouldn’t let Comer carry the weight.

“I made some mistakes. Our whole team did,” Fieler said. “Even when (Comer) was driving, we weren’t moving. We were staying in the same spot. Florida was very active in their defense, rotating and getting to where we were. We made it difficult for him to even find us.”

With Florida benefitting from a 16-8 advantage in second-chance points accrued mostly in the first half and FGCU hitting only 1-of-7 3-pointers in the second half, the Eagles could only cut the deficit to seven points three different times down the stretch.

When another 3-pointer failed to fall, this time for senior leader Sherwood Brown, with about six minutes remaining, the A-Sun Player of the Year looked over at his coach for help. Or answers.

For the first time in a while in Dunk City, none would come.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve learned and probably a lot of America has learned is just believe in yourself,” said Brown, the former temperamental walk-on who turned into a dynamic leader and high-level professional basketball hopeful under Enfield's widely described expert tutelage.

“We did what a lot of people thought we weren’t going to do,” Brown said. “If you believe in yourself, you can pretty much do anything that you set your mind to.”

– Follow Seth Soffian on Twitter @NewsPressSeth

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