There may come a day when the members of the 2019-20 FGCU women’s basketball team are able to look back on their achievements without feeling a pit in their stomachs for what was lost.
But they may never stop wondering “what if?”
After rolling to the program’s 10th ASUN Conference regular-season title in a dozen years and garnering its earliest-in-a- season ranking in a national poll, FGCU, like so many other teams, was left feeling empty by the early termination of the season because of the coronavirus.
But with a senior-dominated rotation that featured four players with at least 1,000 career points – putting FGCU alongside national power Oregon as the only teams in the nation with four 1,000-point scorers – the Eagles felt they were poised for a historic postseason.
That possibly could have included the perennial mid-major juggernaut’s eagerly anticipated first appearance in the Sweet 16.
“We talked about this from the beginning of the season: ‘Could we make history?’” said senior guard Keri Jewett- Giles, a Fort Myers native who graduated last summer but made a last-minute decision to return for one last season because of the strong returning lineup.
“I feel like we were just on our way. We were just at our peak. We’re not ever going to be able to show that. I feel like we had a chance to get into the Sweet 16 and maybe further. We could match up with any team in the country.”
The day after the NCAA canceled the remainder of the season on March 12 because of concerns about COVID-19, FGCU held an impromptu net-cutting ceremony in Alico Arena to commemorate its ASUN regular-season title and being voted by league presidents as the conference’s representative to the NCAA tournament.
The Eagles, 30-3 to that point and ranked 24th in the USA Today coaches’ poll after reaching No. 22 earlier in the year, had already breezed through two rounds of the ASUN tournament.
They were slated to face third-seeded Liberty, swept by FGCU in the regular season, in the ASUN final.
But even with championship rings coming their way and title banners waiting to be unfurled at the start of next season, the Eagles still wanted to settle matters on the court themselves.
“Knowing that we were going to do a lot of damage in the NCAA tournament is gut-wrenching,” said senior Ashli O’Neal, who came to FGCU from Indiana State as a graduate transfer specifically for a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, after the ceremony.
“It felt like a funeral, honestly. It was so sad and so many tears. But at the end there was a lot of joy and a lot of celebration of what we’ve done. It was fun at the end.”
Relying mostly on a six-player rotation that featured five seniors, FGCU also saw four-year program stalwarts Nasrin Ulel and Tytionia Adderley and redshirt senior guard Davion Wingate miss out on their last chances to play in the NCAA tournament.
Joined by redshirt junior starter Kerstie Phills in the main rotation, the veterans led FGCU to a historic November defeat of Notre Dame in Cancun along with non-conference defeats of top-75 RPI programs Duke, UCF, USF and South Dakota State.
On Dec. 31 – more than a month better than its previous best – the program made its earliest entry into the AP or USA Today poll. And as the NCAA tournament neared, the Eagles were projected by ESPN as a No. 9 seed opening the tournament against No. 8 Michigan, with No. 1 South Carolina likely awaiting the winner.
That would have been FGCU’s second-highest seeding ever, trailing only the seventh-seeded squad that beat No. 10 Oklahoma State in the first round in 2015 before falling to No. 2 FSU.
“This team was probably our most explosive offensively,” said program- founding coach Karl Smesko, who took FGCU to the NCAA tournament six times in its first eight years eligible and also led the Eagles to the second round in 2018 as a No. 12 seed. “We had so many different weapons and versatile players who could shoot the 3 and also drive the basket and make decisions. Our big players shot the 3 well and were good post defenders. They helped spread the floor. I thought we had a team capable of beating really good teams.”
The reason for the season suspension and gravity of the situation weren’t lost on the Eagles.
But on the day they would have been playing for their seventh NCAA tournament berth and fourth in as many seasons the emotions were still heavy.
“I want to earn everything I do,” said Jewett-Giles, who also saw her enrollment in a coaching convention at the Final Four erased with that event cancelled.
“I really don’t know how to feel about it. I’m starting to accept it. I’ve got to figure out my life without college basketball, because that’s all I know.”
FGCU has faced major graduations before – particularly after the 2012 and 2016 seasons. But neither saw quite as high a percentage of on-court productivity depart as with this bittersweet campaign.
“You definitely hurt for the players, because they put in a lot of effort,” Smesko said. “But things are out of your control, and you can help players deal with their disappointment.
“I’ll always remember that (the season) was cut short by this extraordinary circumstance. But there were a lot of high moments in it, and we got to experience winning a championship. I’ll probably remember the good moments more than anything.”