PHILADELPHIA — Florida Gulf Coast went from shocking the college basketball world to downright impressing it. And the Eagles were smiling the whole time.
Playing loose and easy, Florida Gulf Coast beat San Diego State 81-71 yesterday to become the first No. 15 seed ever to reach the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” said Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield, whose players tossed him in the air and poured water on him in raucous celebration before his postgame interviews. “We try to have fun, get serious when we have to. Our goal was to make history, and we did it.”
The next opponent will be third-seeded Florida on Friday night in a South Regional semifinal in Dallas.
“We tried to scrimmage them early in the season in the preseason,” Enfield said. “Now we get our shot,”
Bernard Thompson had 23 points and Sherwood Brown added 17 for Florida Gulf Coast, a 16-year-old school in just its second season of eligibility for postseason play. In its first NCAA Tournament game on Friday, the Atlantic Sun tournament champion upset No. 2 Georgetown, a game the Eagles took control of with a 21-2 run in the second half.
It went much the same way against San Diego State.
This time, the run was 17-0, and Brown, who was saddled with foul trouble early in the second half, had eight of the first 10 points. When it was over, the Eagles led 71-52 with 4:19 to play, and the only decisions left were how the players and fans were going to celebrate.
Brown stuck out his tongue after every big basket, often in the direction of the hundreds of Eagles fans jammed into one section.
Even when the game was tight, he and his teammates looked as if they were glad to be on the court. The Eagles waved their arms and played along with a lively crowd that came to see an upset. There were big smiles and high-fives. In short, they showed a kind of joy that’s often missing from high-stakes, high-drama games in March.
The notoriously tough Philadelphia fans loved them back. One seated behind their bench held a sign — “Fly, Eagles, Fly!” — the motto of the NFL team that plays across the street.
After it was over, the team joined in a bird dance that the players on the bench had been doing during the game.
“I know I can say for all the players, this was the biggest game for us. None of us have played on this stage,” point guard Brett Comer said. “We are blessed to be here.”
Florida Gulf Coast played as if it had nothing to lose. And really, the Eagles didn’t. Given their school’s short history, nobody expected them to win a game at the NCAA Tournament, let alone two.
Comer, who didn’t have as many lob passes for dunks as he did against the Hoyas, finished with 10 points and 14 assists, some of which resulted in dunks that had the crowd cheering and wanting more.
“We want to get out and run,” Comer said. “We’re just having so much fun.”
Xavier Thames’ layup brought the Aztecs within 54-52 with 11:33 to play but the Eagles were off on their spurt about 90 seconds later. Florida Gulf Coast kept San Diego State without a field goal for 71/2 minutes.