South Regional: Florida Gulf Coast gaining fans

By Michael Cohen
THE NEW YORK TIMES  • 
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Richard W. Rodriguez | Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram
Florida Gulf Coast’s Cinderella run sparked the interest of two No.?15 seeds last year that fell short of the Sweet 16.

Sometime before Florida and Florida Gulf Coast tip off tonight, before the next episode of the Eagles’ enthralling aerial show, Kyle O’Quinn will send a text message to Kenny Boynton.

The message, sent by O’Quinn, one of the stars of last year’s NCAA Tournament, to Boynton, the senior leader of Florida, will be equal parts ribbing and reprisal — a good-natured jab at a friend that O’Quinn hopes will act as a small form of payback.

“I’m going to text him and wish him good luck,” O’Quinn said. “But he knows what kind of good luck that is.

“I would love for (Florida Gulf Coast) to knock Florida off.”

O’Quinn starred during the first weekend of last year’s tournament for No. 15 seed Norfolk State, with 26 points and 14 rebounds, in a second-round upset of second-seeded Missouri and a memorable quip about picking against his own team in a bracket.

The Spartans were part of history that day, the first Friday of tournament play, as another No. 15 seed, Lehigh, knocked off Duke hours later.

It was the first time that a pair of No. 15 seeds won in the same tournament. And though neither made the field this year, both teams are watching from the outside — fixated, really — on Florida Gulf Coast, the newest member of the 15th-seed fraternity that has surged all the way to the Sweet 16.

“I know in our game against Duke there were quite a few dunks, but the dunks that they’re putting out there are pretty spectacular,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said. “They have demonstrated that they are good enough to compete with anybody on a national stage.”

Before the Eagles took the national stage, alley-ooping their way past No. 2 Georgetown and running away from seventh-seeded San Diego State, they were a seven-man team at a tournament in the Bahamas that caught the eye of Anthony Evans, the Norfolk State coach.

The Eagles were without five players during that trip — including two who averaged more than 15 minutes per game this season — but Evans said their talent was evident. Seven months later, he found himself watching both of the Eagles’ NCAA Tournament games from his home in Chesapeake, Va., his cellphone lighting up constantly with messages from family and friends.

“This is reminiscent of last year,” said Evans, whose team eventually lost to Florida in last year’s tournament (and the reason for O’Quinn’s allegiance tonight). “It brought back great memories. To see them advance to the Sweet 16 was really, really a great feeling.”

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