Don’t call it an upset.
That the FGCU women’s basketball team is still playing is coming as a shock to the national media, and those who only see seed lines.
But for those in and around the program, there’s no surprise.
The Eagles, as the No. 12 seed, controlled the game for most of the way as they dispatched No. 5 Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Stanford, Calif. on Saturday, 80-70.
“We’re just putting our name on the map to let people know we are not just a soft, mid-major team,” senior China Dow said. “We can compete with the best of the best.”
And it wasn’t just those at FGCU saying it either.
“Anyone that’s played against FGCU in the last 5 years KNOWS this win was NOT an upset!” Yolett McPhee-McCuin, head coach at FGCU’s Atlantic Sun rival Jacksonville, tweeted shortly after the final whistle on Saturday.
After beating Jacksonville 68-58 on Mar. 11 to secure the ASUN’s automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament, a berth that the now 31-win Eagles may not have gotten as an at-large, FGCU coach Karl Smesko said he felt his team had a profile more like a No. 5 or No. 6 seed than a No. 12 seed.
“I’ve always felt like when we’ve made the tournament, we’re usually a 12-seed but realistically were a 5 or a 6-seed, and we just don’t have the strength of schedule to get ranked that high,” Eagles coach Karl Smesko said. “I think this team is good enough to win games in the NCAA Tournament.”
FGCU’s women’s program has had a little bit of a tortured history in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2012, as a No. 12 seed, they led by 10 against No. 5 St. Bonaventure with under six minutes to play, but ended up losing in overtime. In 2014, as a No. 12 seed, they led by 10 against No. 5 Oklahoma State with under 10 minutes to play, but ended up losing in overtime. In 2017, as a No. 13 seed against No. 4 Miami, the Eagles tied the game with 10 seconds left on a Taylor Gradinjan three, only to see Keyona Hayes back her down and appear to elbow Gradinjan to the ground on what would be the game-winning bucket with 1.8 seconds to go. There was no call.
“This is the heartbreak in March,” Smesko said after the loss in Coral Gables in 2017. “Hopefully, everybody can at least see how competitive our team is how hard they’re willing to work and how much fight they have in them.”
Meanwhile, down the hall in Alico Arena, their male counterparts made a Sweet Sixteen on their first try, as the “Dunk City” team became the first No. 15 seed to make it that far, in the same year they had their first-ever winning season as a Division I program.
The FGCU women have an opportunity, if they can beat No. 4 seed and host Stanford on Monday. And just as on Saturday, the Eagles attitude isn’t that of an underdog, but of a team that knows it belongs on the March stage.
“We feel like we have a team that can win NCAA Tournament games, and every time we’ve gone we’ve felt like we had a team that could go to the Sweet Sixteen,” Smesko said. “Usually the team that beat us in overtime ended up taking our spot. It would be big for us, mid-majors don’t get to the Sweet Sixten very often, but we look at ourselves very different and the way we play gives us a chance to make this happen.”
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