Equally dangerous Eagles
Florida Gulf Coast makes NCAA tournament in first year eligible
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- More 3-pointers made than any team in the country. One of only four teams ranked among the nation’s top 15 in both points scored and points allowed per game. Owners of the third-longest current winning streak in women’s basketball, along with the fifth-best record in the nation.
Yes, Florida Gulf Coast’s resume is catchy.
Forgive the Eagles if they’re not impressed.
Florida Gulf Coast -- which is headed to the NCAA tournament in its first season of eligibility, five years after playing in the Division II championship game and then transitioning to the top level of college sports -- isn’t that keen about keeping up on all its numbers, even though many of those stats have the Eagles in line with the nation’s elite.
Here’s proof: Some of the Eagles don’t even know how many wins the team has this season. (It’s 29, by the way.)
“That’s our character. That’s how our team is,” said senior guard Kelsey Jacobson, who guessed 28. “We’re not about glory. We’re just here to compete and do the best we can.”
Seeded 12th in the Raleigh Region, Florida Gulf Coast (29-2) will play fifth-seeded St. Bonaventure (29-3) on Sunday in Tallahassee, Fla. The teams have a common opponent in Richmond; FCSU beat the Spiders by 14 in November, the Bonnies topped their Atlantic 10 rival by 16 in January.
“We’re not the biggest team,” said sophomore guard Sarah Hansen, the team’s leader in points (14.3) and rebounds (6.2) per game. “We’re small. We’re not the most athletic girls out there. But we play.”
Winners of 21 in a row, a streak topped by only Baylor and Stanford, the Eagles have a reputation for hinging their hopes on the 3-point shot. True, they’ve taken a mere six more shots from 2-point range (905) this season than from 3-point range (899), a ratio not often seen at any level of basketball.
But defense also matters plenty at FGCU. The Eagles joined Baylor, Connecticut and Notre Dame—all No. 1 tournament seeds—as teams that ranked among the top 15 in scoring and defense this season.
“We take a lot of pride in being able to be good in all phases of the game,” said FGCU coach Karl Smesko, who arrived in Fort Myers a decade ago and started building a program -- averaging more than 26 wins per season along the way and guided the team to the WNIT four time. “We set a goal at the beginning of the year to be both the No. 1 offensive team in our conference and the No. 1 defensive team in our conference, and we were able to achieve that.”
Smesko says he started putting together his offense by borrowing the principles that Bob Knight used for years, emphasizing screening and cutting.
He also knows Knight wouldn’t be a fan of the 3-point-happy system, either.
FGCU made at least 10 3-pointers in 19 different games this season. In November against Webber International, the Eagles tied an NCAA Division I record by connecting 21 times from beyond the arc. Their 51 attempts that night were not even a school record. FGCU got 55 shots off from 3-point range in a game last season against Mercer, and if it makes six 3s against the Bonnies, would pass the Division I single-season mark of 340 made by Morehead State in 2010.
“We just have a different approach to getting good shots,” Smesko said. “We’ve just kind of let it evolve into something that allows us to compete despite a lack of size or a lack of athleticism. It’s a way for us to even the playing field.”
Florida Gulf Coast is outscoring teams by 22 points per game, giving up just 52.6 points per night, good enough to rank 14th nationally in scoring defense. Yes, the Eagles shoot 3s by the dozen, but this isn’t some wild run-and-gun style akin to the Denver Nuggets or Loyola Marymount of a generation ago. If you don’t play defense at FGCU, you don’t play.
“We will scream at each other on the floor in practice,” said Jacobson, whose 329 career 3-pointers ranks No. 2 among active players -- two shy of St. Bonaventure’s Jessica Jenkins. “I’m talking yelling matches. And when that drill is over, it’s automatic, best friends again. The character of the kids that coach recruits allows us to be like that. I think that competitiveness kind of brings us together, too.”
In 31 games, the Eagles allowed a team to shoot better than 46 percent only once, and they held teams to 40 percent or worse 18 times.
“Everyone talks about their offense,” Stetson coach Lynn Bria said. “But I think it’s their defense. They’re very good defensively. I’ve said that since I’ve been in this league. Nobody talks about that.”
Bria said those words after her team lost the A-Sun title game 67-39 to the Eagles.
Maybe this is the most amazing stat of all the amazing stats that Florida Gulf Coast can offer. The Eagles have balance. If you thought an offensive juggernaut would have a big-time scorer, you’d be wrong. Hansen leads the team at 14.3 points per game, barely enough to crack the top 200 nationally. No one else on the team averages more than 10 points a night, and no one averages more than 30 minutes, either.
“I like to think we play smart basketball,” Smesko said. “We’re going to try to execute at a high level. We definitely have a different way of approaching offense than most teams do -- or any team does, really. Our players really like the way that we play. And they also take the way we play very seriously. It’s important to them.”