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Big matchup awaits FGCU women as Kentucky comes to town

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As far as non-conference games go, Friday night’s is a big one for the FGCU women’s basketball team.

Kentucky comes to Alico Arena for a game that could carry major tournament implications for the Eagles in March.

While an at-large bid for FGCU is always a dicey proposition – the Eagles were left out of the NCAA Tournament in 2016 despite winning 21 straight before losing to Jacksonville in the Atlantic Sun tournament finals that year, and were the top vote-getter not in the Top 25 polls at the time – a win over Kentucky could certainly be a major resume booster for the Eagles come tournament time should they get there.

“If you make the NCAA Tournament and you have a win over Kentucky that changes your seeding dramatically,” Eagles coach Karl Smesko said after his team’s 76-66 win over Southeastern on Tuesday. “We know Kentucky is a really good team, they were in the top 25, I don’t know if they’re still in or not but they’re that quality of team, a top 25 team in the country.”

The Wildcats are a Top 25 team, No. 20 in the AP and No. 23 in the Coaches Poll, and the first time FGCU has played host to a ranked team since moving to Division I in 2007.

With the exception of a 90-63 loss to No. 9 Baylor on Nov. 30, the Wildcats have been tearing through their opponents so far this season. Kentucky is outscoring opponents by an average of 21.5 points per game. They’ve also been particularly punishing on the defensive end, holding opponents to 36 percent from the field – and just 28 percent from the three-point line, while forcing an average of 15 turnovers per game.

“They’re going to pressure you. Sometimes they’ll play full-court pressure man, they’ll try to pressure you on the perimeter and try and get you to make some mistakes they definitely believe in getting after you,” Smesko said.

But the Eagles have had a taste of high-caliber basketball already in the young season, including games against ranked opponents in consecutive days during a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in Las Vegas which included a win over then-ranked No. 21 DePaul before losing to then No. 8 Ohio State.

“Fortunately we’ve played some teams that have had that same philosophy. We’ve been a little inconsistent about it but there have been some times we’ve looked really good against pressure,” Smesko said.

Kentucky is led by 6-foot junior Maci Morris, who leads the Wildcats with 16.7 points per game. In total four Wildcats average double figures, including three starters, while forward Alyssa Rice puts up 9.0 points per game while leading the team in rebounding with 7.3 per game.

“There’s no doubt they’ve got good players,” Smesko said. “They’ve got four big, some more athletic than others but they’ve got four big kids they can rotate, keep fresh and keep coming at you. Big thing for us is can we compete on the boards with them, can we get everybody contributing on rebounding, then hopefully we’ll have to shoot it better than we did [Tuesday] to have a chance.”

KEYS TO THE GAME

Rebounds – Kentucky outrebounds their opponents by nearly 12 boards per game, and average 16 offensive rebounds per game. The Eagles will have to try and limit those second chance opportunities.

Hit open looks – With a bigger and taller opponent, FGCU’s moniker of “Raining Threes” will have to ring true. The Eagles can’t afford to miss open looks when they get them. Get the long ball to fall, and that will start to draw the defense out farther from the basket, which can open up drive and backdoor cut opportunities.

No. 20 Kentucky vs. FGCU
Friday, 7 p.m.
Alico Arena, Fort Myers
Broadcast: ESPN3
Tickets: FGCUTickets.com; (239)590-7145


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