California Dreaming: FGCU women shipped to Stanford to face Mizzou in NCAA Tourney

Lee Herald Favicon 16The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee sent FGCU about as far away from home as they possibly could.

The FGCU women’s basketball team will be shipping off to California to play Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Stanford on Saturday.

“Hopefully all my friends and family can watch me play, I’m excited,” said Eagles sophomore Nasrin Ulel, the lone Californian on the roster.

It’s a 5-12 matchup for the Eagles, the third such time they’ve been a No. 12 seed in the Big Dance. They were also a 12 in 2012 and 2014. Eagles coach Karl Smesko had talked about how the Eagles always seem to end up on or around this 12 line Sunday after the conference championship, and now here they are once again.

“I was hoping for something a little higher, but we’ve understood that something between 10 and 12 was where we were going to fall and we did,” Smesko said. “I’m not real sure what criteria the committee takes most serious, you’ve just got to play who they line you up with.”

And it’s a tall task lined up against them.

Missouri(24-7), out of the SEC, features a starting lineup with four players standing at least 5-foot-11. FGCU only has three such players that tall on their entire roster, and only one of them, Rosemarie Julien, sees any significant playing time. And Julien might only be that tall if you count the hair.

“We’re going to have to do a lot of studying to get ourselves ready,” Smesko said. “I know they’re really good, I’m surprised they’re a five seed. But it doesn’t really matter what I think of the matchup, we’ve got to go out there and do the best we can.”

There’s not a lot of familiarity to be had by anyone on the Eagles roster, but for those that like the transitive property game the two schools have two opponents in common. Mizzou beat Kentucky 83-78 this season – FGCU did 70-64 on Dec. 8, and the Tigers also beat Illinois at home 72-55. The Eagles played the Illini in their season opener and won 85-61.

The big question mark for FGCU will be if they can handle Mizzou’s Sophie Cunningham. The junior averages 18 points per game, including an eye-popping 46.6 percent shooting from three-point range. And that’s not a small sample size, either, she’s hit 68 of them this year.

“She’s exceptional, she’s one of the best players in the country, probably going to be an All-American,” Smesko said. “It’s going to take a team effort to slow her down.”

One thing the Eagles have on their side, luckily, is time.

First round games were set to run on Friday and Saturday, and fortunately, given the distance between FGCU and the Maples Pavilion runs approximately 3,000 miles away, the Eagles were given a Saturday tip-off.

Host Stanford, the No. 4 seed, will play No. 13 Gonzaga in the other game in the pod, and the winners of each game will face-off in the second round on Monday.

Cross country travel is something new for FGCU in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve been in-state on three of their four previous NCAA visits, twice in Tallahassee, and once in Coral Gables last year. The lone exception was in 2014, when they played on Purdue’s campus in West Lafayette, Ind.

But China Dow has done it before.

“My freshman year at [Middle Tennessee] they shipped us out to Seattle, and they got us caught up on the sleep hours so I know the NCAA will take care of us,” Dow said. “This is what happens in March Madness, you have to go in there with a winning attitude. We can do a lot more than we have.”

Ulel, herself no stranger to the long haul between California and Florida, offered some travel advice.

“Hope you get a window seat,” she joked.

No. 5 MISSOURI vs. No. 12 FGCU
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Maples Pavilion, Stanford, Calif.
Online: WatchESPN

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