After nearly a month, travelling all over the country as part of an eight-game road stretch, the FGCU women’s basketball team returned to play just their second home game of the season on Tuesday.
Rosemarie Julien scored 25 points and Erica Nelson added 18 as the Eagles beat NAIA Southeastern on Tuesday, 76-66, but not without a fight.
Typically, NAIA teams aren’t much of a challenge for a Division I opponent, much less so when playing a team as talented as FGCU. But the Fire aren’t a typical NAIA school, starting their season 11-0 and boasting five Division I transfers – including from the likes of Kentucky and West Virginia – on their roster. Eagles coach Karl Smesko even said so himself.
“I commend Southeastern they’re an exceptional team, they’ve got a tremendous opportunity to win the national championship in their division,” Smesko said, himself the coach of an NAIA champion with Walsh in 1998. “They’re not your typical non D-I, a lot of their roster are D-I transfers and a lot of them high D-I. This was a really good team that we played.”
The first sign was in the opening minutes, as the Fire, thanks to an active, aggressive, and pesky zone defense combined with an eerily familiar uptempo motion offense, didn’t immediately get run out of the gym like most NAIA opponents. For comparison, FGCU beat Ave Maria last season by 65 – a team in the same conference as Southeastern.
Every time it appeared the Eagles(8-2) were ready to pull away, the pesky Fire had an answer. The Eagles led 37-21 late in the first half, but Southeastern got a pair of quick buckets including a three from Jaycee Coe to pull within 37-26 at the half.
A three from Taylor Gradinjan early in the third gave the Eagles a 15-point lead at 43-28, and it appeared that was going to be the run that put them away. Until the Fire went on a 10-0 run, capped by a three-point play from Anissa Toumi to cut the deficit to 43-38 midway through the third.
Julien admitted they were surprised by just how competitive the Fire was.
“I was surprised even though [Smesko] said [how good they were],” Julien said. “As soon as the game continued to go on, we knew we couldn’t take them for a joke.”
Southeastern continued to fight and keep within shouting distance, trailing just 63-56 with 6:05 left to play off a Halee Printz three. But finally, the once seemingly inevitable run to put it out of reach finally happened. Gradinjan – who scored her 1,000th career point in the first half – hit a three off an inbound, then China Dow knocked down another on FGCU’s next trip down the floor. Less than a minute later, Nelson hit the third straight three for the Eagles and matched her career-high fourth in the game to make it 72-56 with 4:18 left to go and finally put out the Fire.
“I’ve been struggling with confidence and shooting threes,” Nelson said. “I just needed to get confident in my shot, because I make them in practice and in shooting drills.”
The Eagles take on Kentucky on Friday, in a game which could have NCAA Tournament implications in March.
“If you make the NCAA Tournament and you have a win over Kentucky that changes your seeding dramatically,” Smesko said. “We know Kentucky is a really good team, they’re playing right here in Alico so we’re hoping for a huge turnout. We’ll spend the next couple days preparing as best we can and hopefully have a great showing.”
NUMBERS TO KNOW
1,000 – Taylor Gradinjan became the 10th player in program history to score 1,000 career points on a layup in the first half.
24 – FGCU forced 24 turnovers out of Southeastern, 11 of them by steals, and turned them into 21 points.
50 – The Eagles shot just 50 percent from the free throw line, 9-of-18. Julien was a perfect 7-of-7, the rest of the team was 2-of-11 combined.
Ave Maria(NAIA), Sunday
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