Zach Johnson scored a career high 27 points, and the FGCU men’s basketball team needed all of them as they dropped Illinois State in a shootout, 98-87 at Alico Arena on Saturday to open the season.
Going into the season, those inside the program raved about the possibility of a four guard lineup, and the Eagles brought exactly that to start the season giving sophomore guard Christian Carlyle his first career start. Carlyle scored 11 for the Eagles.
“He’s been getting better, the guys know it they’ve got to play against him every day,” Eagles coach Joe Dooley said. “He’s been getting better and better and we need that.”
But it was Johnson who took the biggest advantage of the lineup, starting at point guard instead of Brandon Goodwin who spent more time at shooting guard, including nine points in a key stretch in the second half which appeared it would give the Eagles separation.
As part of that run, Johnson drilled a three to put FGCU ahead 75-65, then following a four point play from the Redbirds’ Keyshawn Evans followed his own miss on a three by laying it in from the baseline.
But the Redbirds wouldn’t go away. Evans led Illinois State with 28 points, including seven threes, combining with forward Phil Fayne, who scored 24 and was a nightmare for the Eagles down low.
“He’s good a good first step. We didn’t do a good job of scouting report defense,” Dooley said. “When knew he was going to go left and we put ourselves in harm’s way.”
While Fayne was able to take advantage of the Eagles newer big men, Ricky Doyle fouled out playing just nine minutes in his FGCU debut, and neither Antravious Simmons nor Brady Ernst could keep up with his quick steps, the Eagles still managed a two to one edge on the glass, including a 17-5 edge on offensive rebounds.
“I’m embarrassed by the defensive effort,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. “I’m shocked by that level of effort we gave defensive, we probably gave up 20 points because we didn’t know who we were guarding. That’s just not good.”
Illinois State closed the gap as close as 83-82 with 4:33 to go, and it was still a four point game, 90-86, in the closing minutes. But Goodwin, who some had a quiet 21 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, made a pair of drives to finally slam the door shut, both resulting in three-point plays. The first one, with 1:20 to go, fouled Evans out of the game, but the second with 50 seconds left saw Goodwin go right down main street on the very next trip, finishing through contact from Fayne and making it a 96-87 lead.
“Brandon played like Brandon plays,” Johnson said. “He made plays all across the board, he touches the game in all different ways and puts the team on his back in all different ways.”
NEW FACES HAVE THEIR MOMENTS
Sophomore Dinero Mercurius scored 11 in his FGCU debut, including hitting back to back threes in the second half. The second, a spot-up jumper in transition, gave the Eagles the lead for good at 57-56. Ernst, a junior college transfer along with Mercurius, scored on his only shot attempt of the day, and added three rebounds in 11 minutes.
“We’re hoping he’ll stretch the defense, being able to make threes,” Dooley said. “I thought he gave us a good lift, the one right in front of our bench was a big shot in transition.”
The day was also memorable for Doyle, playing in front of his hometown fans for the first time as an Eagle, but maybe not for the right reasons. Doyle picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game, and eventually fouled out after just nine minutes of play – the first time in his life he’s ever fouled out of a game, he said.
“Unfortunately, I was fouling too much but it felt really good to be out there,” Doyle said. “It’s been a long break.”
When he was on the floor, Doyle scored eight points, hitting all three shots he attempted along with 2-of-3 on free throws.
27 – Not only was it Johnson’s new career high, one more than 26 scored in a game against Bowling Green in 2015, but it’s also how many free throws the Eagles made Saturday. The Eagles went 27-of-37 at the line, compared to 7-of-16 for the Redbirds
98 – The most points FGCU has ever scored in a season opening game, and their most in a game against a Division I opponent since Nov. 21, 2015, when they scored 104 in a triple overtime game against Youngstown State.
at Siena, Monday
at Bowling Green, Nov. 18
at Middle Tennessee State, Nov. 21
vs. Denver, Nov. 24
vs. Navy, Nov. 25
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