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Basketball teams show they are made of tough stuff

FGCU men, women continue growth into mid-major muscle teams

The dramatic close to this year’s basketball season looks much like a classic case of sibling rivalry.

Twenty years ago, as FGCU was born sans athletics program, Florida State’s men’s basketball team had a 20-win season and finished second in the National Invitational Tournament; the next year, the team won 19 games and advanced to round two of the NCAA Tournament. The University of Miami’s women’s team, meanwhile, won 19 games in 1997 and earned an NCAA bid after finishing second in the powerful Big East for a second consecutive season.

Those FSU and UM teams — two of the nation’s most successful intercollegiate athletics programs — are, along with the University of Florida, older siblings to whom everyone looks up when it comes to intrastate role models for winning sports teams.

On the other side of the Sunshine State dinner table are the younger offspring, our Eagles basketball squads. The teams weren’t even born until 2002, and through the transition from NCAA Division II to playing with the big boys and girls in D-1, they’ve enjoyed great success as mid-major programs in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

The FGCU women’s team has finished first or second in the ASUN and been invited to postseason tournaments in all 10 seasons of D-1 competition, making it all the way to the 2016 WNIT championship game. The men, meanwhile, seized the attention of the entire basketball world and a national television audience with a sensational run to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2013, and have followed that with two more NCAA appearances and an NIT bid.

For all that success, the younger siblings, while often able to dominate their mid-major peers, have been kept in their relative pecking-order place by bigger, older basketball programs such as the FSU and UM teams that compete in the nation’s greatest collegiate basketball league, the dog-eat-dog Atlantic Coast Conference.

But as FGCU proved against those universities in this year’s NCAA postseason play, baby brother and kid sister are getting older and bigger and stronger and better.

While the athletics programs of the Seminoles and Hurricanes maintain their top-tier status, their narrow victories over their FGCU counterparts during March Madness — an 86-80 dogfight in the men’s first-round game in Orlando and a 62-60 nailbiter in the women’s opener at Coral Gables — serve notice that the youngsters from FGCU are stepping out of the older siblings’ shadows.

In basketball terms, FGCU’s message to the established powerhouse schools is clear: We can compete.

2017 ASUN Champs

“This team has fought as hard as any I’ve had,” Coach Karl Smesko said of his ASUN Tournament champions after they fell at the buzzer to Miami. This is a team that finished 26-9 and placed second in the league during the regular season, only to snatch the guaranteed NCAA bid from the first-place team, Stetson, in a tremendous 77-70 road triumph in Deland.

“To be behind against a top-20 team on the road … to come back from that and essentially take it to the end against a great team, I’m very proud of our players,” Smesko said graciously after the bitter NCAA defeat.

This was the first time in seven seasons Smesko did not win the ASUN Coach of the Year award — Stetson’s regular-season title clinched that honor for Coach Lynn Bria — but it arguably was one of his greatest coaching performances in a transitional rebuilding year for the Eagles.

“I remember when we were 2-5 and I told them, ‘Hey, I’ve never been 2-5 as a coach, so this is new for me, too. So the only thing I know to do is to go back to work, compete at it and try to help you as best I can, and hopefully you guys will have the same attitude,”’ Smesko recounted before the Miami game.

Calling the team’s progress “slow and incremental,” Smesko credited his assistant coaching staff — all former Eagles players well indoctrinated in the team culture — for the turnaround. “We have a great staff … we definitely needed the assistants’ help to get people progressing.”

Indeed, while Smesko tapped into the coaching skills of assistants Chelsea Banbury, Chelsea Lyles, Jenna Cobb, Stephanie Haas and Amanda Pierce, it was the team’s athletes who rallied behind all that coaching up. All-conference competitors Rosemarie Julien, a junior forward who averaged a team-high 11 points per game, made the ASUN first team and was named Newcomer of the Year after transferring to FGCU from Chipola College; senior guard Jordin Alexander, a second-team pick who averaged a team-high 2.8 assists per game; and All-Freshman selection Tytionia Adderly, a forward who topped the Eagles in rebounding at 7.7 pg, were three key players who helped spark the Eagles’ turnaround.

FGCU loses Alexander, but with an experienced nucleus of Julien, Adderly, sixth-year senior Taylor Gradinjan (an ASUN All-Academic Team player with a 4.0 GPA in health sciences who missed two seasons with knee injuries), and fellow seniors Erica Nelson, Jessica Cattani and China Dow (who led the Eagles past Stetson in the NCAA-clinching ASUN title game with a career-high 31 points), there’s little question FGCU’s ready to compete next season.

Double honors for Dooley

Men’s Coach Joe Dooley earned his first ASUN Coach of the Year honor this season, and deservedly so. His Eagles won 19 of their final 21 games entering the NCAA battle with Florida State, a run that included plowing through three ASUN opponents in Alico Arena during the conference tournament, climaxed by a 77-61 victory over North Florida in the title match before a record crowd of 4,711.

Dooley also earned FGCU’s first National Association of Basketball Coaches District 3 Coach of the Year distinction, and he was joined on the NABC honor roll by District 3 first-team, rising redshirt senior Brandon Goodwin, a 6-foot-2 point guard whose first season with the Eagles was one for the record books.

A transfer from the University of Central Florida, the Norcross, Ga., native became the first FGCU player to score 600 points in a season (629), leading the team in scoring (18.5 ppg), while also pacing FGCU in assists (4.1 pg).  The unanimous ASUN Newcomer of the Year and first-team selection also took home the league’s tournament MVP honor by averaging 20 points in FGCU’s three wins, and saved his best for last in the NCAA loss to FSU, racking up a game-high 28 points and seven assists.

“Brandon had one of the best, if not the best season, in program history,” said Dooley, who has won 91 games since taking the FGCU job in 2013 and has led the team to two NCAA bids and appearances in the NIT and Collegeinsider.com Tournament. “It’s great to see him recognized for all the hard work he has put in. He played with passion every game, and his leadership was infectious throughout the team.”

Dooley’s team lived up to the high expectations put on it before the season, matching the FGCU record with 26 wins while losing fewer than 10 games (eight) for the first time since the university became a D-1 program. In the regular season, FGCU won its most games ever (23) and its 12-2 ASUN record included a perfect 7-0 effort on the road as the Eagles captured their first regular-season title. FGCU won its last nine road games of the year, which was the second-best such run in the nation.

“It’s been a great year, and we’re looking forward to getting back to work to make sure next year is even better,” Dooley said.

Goodwin will be back, and the losses of Demetris Morant, named the ASUN Defensive Player of the Year averaging a team-best eight rebounds a game; and Marc-Eddy Norelia, who was an NABC District 3 First Team forward in 2016, will hopefully be offset by the eligibility of two 6-foot-10 transfers who had to sit out this season: Ricky Doyle, who played one year at Michigan after graduating from Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers; and Michael Gilmore, who played at UM and Virginia Commonwealth. They’ll be joined by 6-foot-9 Brian Thomas out of Marietta, Ga.; and 6-foot-2 guard Rasheed Browne, who comes to the Eagles as a freshman after attending a Philadelphia prep school.

Besides Goodwin, other top returning Eagles include guards Zach Johnson, a rising junior who was second on the team in scoring at just under 12 ppg; and rising senior Christian Terrell, fourth in scoring at 10.2 pg.

It all adds up to a program that, along with FGCU’s perennially powerful women’s team, continues to rise in stature to the point where the Florida States and Miamis of the college basketball world now realize that baby brother and little sis over there in Southwest Florida are no pushovers on the floor.

In an interview before the NCAA game with sports-talk personalities Dirt & Sprague on 1080 The Fan in Portland, Ore., Dooley — citing his team’s depth, a track record of recruiting quality student athletes who graduate and a tougher non-conference schedule that gives his players confidence in big games — put it this way about facing the Seminoles in The Dance: “I don’t think our kids are going to be standing around asking them for autographs.”

My, how quickly they grow.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column]

SEASONS OF SPLENDOR

FGCU men’s basketball
(26-8 overall, 12-2 Atlantic Sun Conference)

  • Atlantic Sun regular-season and tournament champions, NCAA bid
  • Joe Dooley: ASUN and NABC District 3 Coach of the Year
  • Brandon Goodwin: A-Sun Newcomer of the Year, ASUN First Team, NABC District 3 First Team
  • Demetris Morant: A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year

FGCU women’s basketball

(26-9 overall, 12-2 Atlantic Sun Conference)

  • Atlantic Sun tournament champion, NCAA bid
  • Rosemarie Julien: ASUN Newcomer of the Year, A-Sun First Team
  • Jordin Alexander: ASUN Second Team
  • Tytionia Adderly: ASUN All-Freshman Team
  • Taylor Gradinjan: ASUN All-Academic Team
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