Women gain “great experience” from first NCAA tourney
With their team up 10 points with five minutes remaining, the small contingent of Southwest Florida fans near courtside bounced up and down with joy. The FGCU women’s basketball team was on the verge of making history inside the Tallahassee arena in March, and the fans could almost touch it.
But it wasn’t to be. St. Bonaventure rallied for a 72-65 overtime win, ending FGCU’s hopes of winning the school’s first NCAA Division I postseason game. The Eagles’ first-round loss ended another eye-opening season for the program. FGCU went 29-3, collecting an Atlantic Sun Conference championship to reach the NCAA Tournament in its first season of Division I postseason eligibility.
“Winning the Atlantic Sun championship on our first try was really a special moment,” FGCU coach Karl Smesko says. “Being a part of the NCAA Tournament for the first time was a great experience. Although we didn’t finish the game very strong, I think we showed we have a top-25 caliber team.”
Senior guard Nicoya Jackson, one of five seniors who spearheaded the team, calls the St. Bonaventure loss “heartbreaking.”
Smesko wanted the postseason victory for his seniors, who worked tirelessly the last four years to make FGCU women’s basketball a nationally respected program.
“Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in the last five minutes,” Smesko says. “We had the ball with one last shot to win in regulation but we didn’t execute as well as I wanted.”
Next season, Smesko plans on playing the same up-tempo, 3-point shooting style. But he wants his team to be stronger. He’s asked players to hit the gym. Against St. Bonaventure, FGCU struggled moving through St. Bonaventure’s physical style on offense.
Smesko also plans on beefing up his team’s schedule to better prepare his club for the postseason. Next year, the Eagles will travel to Richmond and Virginia Tech and play host to 2011 NCAA qualifier Central Florida.
The FGCU men, who went 15-7, will also have a tougher schedule. The men, whose home opener will be Nov. 13 against Miami, came within 20 minutes of reaching the NCAA Tournament this year.
After two stunning upsets over South Carolina-Upstate and Mercer, the Eagles fell to top-seeded Belmont 83-69 in the Atlantic Sun Conference championship. The Eagles led Belmont by as much as 13 points in the first half.
“It gave our program great experience,” FGCU coach Andy Enfield says.
Enfield believes his team can carry the tournament momentum to next year.