In October 2012, Florida Gulf Coast University was holding open tryouts for its fledgling basketball program. Now, they’re the first 15-seed in NCAA history to earn a Sweet 16 berth.
On Sunday night, the unheralded Eagles shocked the college basketball world for a second time, defeating a solid San Diego State squad, 81-71. Through a combination of incredible athleticism, team chemistry, and sheer exuberance, coach Andy Enfield’s squad has established itself as this year’s Cinderella story.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously," said coach Enfield, after a wild, Gatorade-fueled post-game celebration. "We try to have fun, get serious when we have to. Our goal was to make history and we did it."
For a school that has only existed since 1997, making history is rarely within the realm of possibility. To say the least, making this year’s NCAA tournament was a long shot—the 2012-13 college season is only the school’s second year of postseason eligibility. Somehow, the Eagles will play third-seeded Florida, the long-time regional juggernaut, in Friday’s South Regional semifinals.
"We tried to scrimmage them early in the season in the preseason," said Enfield. "Now we get our shot."
Much like Florida Gulf Coast’s stunning opening round victory against Georgetown, Sunday night’s matchup against the San Diego State Aztecs was a game of streaks. Against the Hoyas, the Eagles relied upon a 21-2 second half run to turn the tide. During Sunday night’s battle, Eagles star Sherwood Brown led his team on a devastating 17-0 run, securing yet another stunning upset.
Brown fought through early foul trouble to record 17 points, while his backcourt running-mate Bernard Thompson led the team with 23. Brown, a natural showman, did everything he could to ignite an energetic Philadelphia crowd.
"We're all about having fun and also playing really hard and that's something we like to do, we like to get the crowd involved. The whole crowd got behind us even if they are not from Fort Myers, or as I like to say, 'Dunk City,' “said Brown, referring to the high-flying school’s new nickname.
Guard Brett Comer, who showcased his excellent court vision by recording 14 assists, echoed Brown’s sentiment. "I know I can say for all the players, this was the biggest game for us. None of us have played on this stage," Comer said. "We are blessed to be here."
To their credit, the seventh-seeded Aztecs exhibited admirable sportsmanship in the face of their devastating loss. Jamaal Franklin, the team’s star guard, was one of the first to congratulate Brown during the raucous celebration. "I just told him just keep being the leader that he is, make sure the ball is in his hands, make sure he does what he has to do to keep his team rolling," Franklin said.
Aztecs coach Steve Fisher also heaped praise upon his upstart opponents. "They play with a swagger, and they have a right to do that," said Fisher, who once coached the Fab Five at Michigan. "You can have that look and feel, but you have to compete and play to earn your spurs, and they've done that."
Even Las Vegas oddsmakers are jumping on the Eagles’ bandwagon. ESPN notes that, before the tournament, MGM gave Florida Gulf Coast 2000-to-1 odds of winning the NCAA tournament. Now, the odds have risen as high as 40-to-1.
Despite their excellent start, Florida Gulf Coast’s tournament future is far from certain. Coach Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators have trounced their first two opponents and possess both the discipline and the talent to hold their ground against their in-state rival's current momentum.
Still, coach Enfield doesn’t seem worried. "We know they can be beaten," he said. The Eagles’ growing legion of fans are hoping that he’s right.