Florida Gulf Coast’s high-flying Eagles continued their NCAA tournament thrill show Sunday, cementing their place in college basketball history as the first No. 15 seed to reach the event’s round of 16.
Staging yet another dunk-fest at the expense of a heavily favored opponent, FGCU earned its round of 16 date — against No. 3 Florida, no less — with an 81-71 romp over No. 7 San Diego State before an enthralled, packed house at the Wells Fargo Center, where No. 2 Duke took on Creighton later.
Competing in their first NCAA tournament, the Eagles haven’t simply thrust their little-known Fort Myers campus into the national spotlight. They’ve established themselves as the best show in college basketball with their exuberant, almost acrobatic, uptempo style.
After trailing 35-34 at halftime, the Eagles exploded for 47 points in the second half. They thrilled the crowd with alley-oops and dunks as their bench cheered them on as fervently as their fans, whipping towels and erupting into a dirty-bird dance with more than four minutes remaining.
And when it was over, history in hand, sophomore guard Sherwood Brown blew kisses at the team’s fans, whose legions are growing with each performance.
“We like to get the crowd involved, even if they aren’t from Fort Myers — or, as I like to say, ‘Dunk City!’ ” Brown said afterward.
It was the second game in which FGCU has toppled a higher seed by 10 points. No. 2 Georgetown was the Eagles’ opening-round victim, falling, 78-68, in the biggest upset of the South Region.
If anything, FGCU played with more abandon and more athleticism Sunday even though a Sweet 16 berth was at stake. Instead of tensing up, they started loose and got looser as the game unfolded, playing basketball as if it were a jazz session, each player riffing off another.
But while wildly improvisational, they weren’t sloppy.
The Eagles, who got a game-high 23 points from Bernard Thompson, shot a staggering 59 percent from the field.
Orchestrating it all was their gritty point guard, sophomore Brett Comer, blessed with keen peripheral vision and terrific timing, who revels in hitting teammates with passes midflight and streaking toward the basket only to dish to an onrushing Eagle several paces back. Comer finished with 14 assists and 10 points.
Reaching the final 16 represents a tremendous achievement for a school that didn’t open until 1997 and only started its basketball program in 2002-03. And it was a personal triumph for second-year Coach Andy Enfield, who soundly outcoached San Diego State’s Steve Fisher, who led Michigan to the 1989 NCAA Championship.
“They play with a swagger,” Fisher said with admiration, “and they have the right to do that.”
The first alley-oop, finished with a fury by Eric McKnight, came 11 minutes in.
The first half unfolded at a torrid pace, with the teams trading three-pointers — four of them in succession — in one stretch.
Shortly after the Eagles retook the lead, they turned the game into a track meet. Fisher tried a more deliberate pace; the Eagles pushed the tempo.
Back in the game, Brown (17 points) hit from long range to give the Eagles their first double-digit lead. And San Diego State, led by Jamaal Franklin’s 20 points, didn’t have a chance of closing the gap.
As is customary, Enfield was asked for an opening statement in the press conference that followed. It consisted of six words: “We’re going to the Sweet 16!”