Winning on home floor a special moment for Eagles

Lee Herald Favicon 16Climbing ladders and cutting down nets have almost become an annual tradition for the FGCU women’s basketball program.

Since becoming NCAA Tournament eligible in 2012, the Eagles have done it now five times thanks to a 68-58 win on Sunday over Jacksonville in the Atlantic Sun tournament final.

The ritual is pretty straightforward: players and staff one by one cut off a small piece of the net, with the head coach taking the last cut and retrieving the net off the rim.

Except on Sunday it wasn’t FGCU coach Karl Smesko that was the last to climb the ladder, it was sixth-year senior Taylor Gradinjan who made the final cuts.

As with many things around this program, that was by Smesko’s design.

“I got peer pressured into cutting the net down once,” Smesko said. “I’d rather watch our players and our managers and the people involved in our program gety up there and cut down the net than have myself up there. The great part about coaching is when you can see the people you work with and your players enjoy success and celebrate.”

Gradinjan, the sixth-year sharpshooter that suffered through two season-ending knee injuries that has played more games in an FGCU uniform than anyone in program history, finally admitted to a situation on the Alico Arena floor than made her uncomfortable.

“I’m not the biggest fan of ladders,” she joked. “But it was exciting to cut [the net] down and hold it up.”

Also not a member of the ladder fan club, for the record, is China Dow.

“I’m clumsy,” she said.

Though winning conference titles is nothing new to FGCU, this one appeared to carry a little extra weight: it was a home celebration with their home fans.

FGCU women’s basketball coach Karl Smesko dances after FGCU wins the 2018 Atlantic Sun tournament championship on March 11, 2018.(Photo: Linwood Ferguson)

The last time FGCU won a conference title at home, a 60-43 win over now-departed for the Horizon League Northern Kentucky in 2015, only Gradinjan and Jessica Cattani were on the roster.

Last season’s tournament final was in DeLand, a celebration on Stetson’s home floor, and the last tournament final on this floor resulted in Jacksonville, not FGCU, celebrating and cutting down the nets.

So as the final seconds ticked away, Dow, who quickly became a fan favorite after transferring from Middle Tennessee State, started riling up the home crowd of 2,966.

“As the time started clicking I was thinking we might’ve got in a ring,” Dow said. “I get excited and get the crowd involved and once the crowd was into it then I went to [Smesko].”

Smesko smiled.

“Knowing China she had this all planned out,” he said. “She knew exactly what order she was going in.”

FGCU classes of players tend to come in waves. The six senior class of 2012, which featured Courtney Chihil and Kelsey Jacobsen, led the Eagles to their first NCAA Tournament. The 2016 class, also with six seniors including Whitney Knight, Kaneisha Atwater, and current FGCU assistant Stephanie Haas, got to claim FGCU’s first NCAA Tournament win in 2015.

This class of five, Gradinjan, Cattani, Dow, Erica Nelson and Rosemarie Julien, had to fill in the shoes of what might have been FGCU’s golden generation.

At least in Dow’s case, she earned some high praise from Jacksonville coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin.

“I thought I was excited when Whitney Knight was graduating, but I’m really excited that China Dow is graduation,” McPhee-McCuin joked, drawing echoes of Stetson coach Lynn Bria saying she’d bring flowers to Knight’s graduation ceremony.

China Dow(22) celebrates after hitting a three pointer for FGCU in the Atlantic Sun tournament final on March 11, 2018.(Photo: Linwood Ferguson)

And they might be able to match the 2016’s feat, depending on how things shake out when the NCAA Tournament field is announced on Monday night.

“I think this team is good enough to win games in the NCAA Tournament,” Smesko said. “I feel good about the players we have and the level of focus we have and their ability to go out there and compete.”

They won’t have to wait long to find out.


Monday, 7 p.m.


2017: No. 4 Miami, L 62-60
2015: No. 10 Oklahoma State, W 75-67, No. 2 Florida State, L 65-47
2014: No. 5 Oklahoma State, L 61-60(OT)
2012: No. 5 St. Bonaventure, L 72-65(OT)

Record: 30-4, 13-1 in ASUN
Polls: Receiving Votes(AP, Coaches’)
RPI: 47
Best Wins: DePaul(RPI 20), South Dakota State(RPI 28)
Worst Losses: at North Florida(RPI 239)
Record against Top 50 RPI: 2-1
Record against Top 100 RPI: 7-3
Strength of Schedule: 190(Non-Conferece: 52)

Leading Scorers: G Rosemarie Julien(13.4 ppg), G China Dow(11.8 ppg), G Taylor Gradinjan(10.2 ppg)
Leading Rebounder: F Tytionia Adderly(9.1 rpg)

Watercooler Number to Know: NCAA leading 407 three-pointers this season(NCAA record: 424)

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