By STEPHEN HAWKINS
ARLINGTON, Texas — Florida Gulf Coast had already captured the attention of a nation, the No. 15 seed that busted brackets and brought a high-flying act from “Dunk City” to the NCAA tournament.
So when the journey ended with a 62-50 loss to that bigger school from Florida just before midnight Friday, the Eagles had still left their mark on March.
“We made history,” point guard Brett Comer said. “We did something nobody in the nation thought we could do.”
For a few minutes at least in its last game, the first No. 15 seed to make it to the NCAA round of 16 looked as if it might even go further.
The Eagles were hitting 3-pointers, had a highlight alley-oop and made a behind-the-back pass in an early 11-0 run that put them ahead of Florida, the No. 3 seed getting an all-too-close look at what everybody has enjoyed watching.
But Michael Frazier’s only two baskets of the night were a pair of 3-pointers that got the Gators on their own run.
“When they started their run, we didn’t have the energy we had in the other two games,” Chase Fieler said. “We weren’t playing with the same fire we were before.”
Frazier’s 3-pointers came from the left side, directly in front of the FGCU bench, and started a 16-0 run late in the first half.
Once Frazier hit his shots, things just rolled downhill for the Eagles (26-11), whose program is so new they were only in their second season of eligibility for the tournament. The baskets started a 4Ω-minute span when the Eagles couldn’t even get off a shot. They missed their only field goal attempt while turning the ball over four times in that stretch.
The slump finally ended when Sherwood Brown, the Eagles’ dreadlocked senior showman, made a layup in the final minute to trim the Gators’ lead to 30-26 at halftime.
FGCU heads back to Fort Myers (aka Dunk City), where it has man-made lakes and a beach on campus, having given the tournament a blast of fresh air while its players were just having a blast. The South Florida state school also got about the best free publicity its administrators could ever hope for.
“It was great to see the excitement across the country with the underdog and it’s just a real feeling when you’re the underdog and you’re the talk of the nation,” coach Andy Enfield said. “Our plan wasn’t to become some great national story. Our plan was to go in and compete and win games. It was unbelievable to see the excitement and passion of not only our local community, the students, but also the national level.
“Our players believed, and they accomplished something special.”
Florida (29-7) is going to its third straight NCAA regional final after holding the Eagles to a season low-matching 50 points.
The Gators will play Michigan in the South Regional final at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday. They are trying to get to their first NCAA Final Four since consecutive national championships in 2006 and 2007.
FGCU players walked down the steps of the raised court at the break with their heads down, much different from the team that looked so loose and ready for a good time after the early run so similar to extended spurts they had in upsetting No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 seed San Diego State.
After the Gators turned up the defensive pressure, the most fun team this side of the Harlem Globetrotters was suddenly having a lot fewer laughs. Those spectacular dunks and alley-oops weren’t there and Florida forced 20 turnovers.
“Stepping into a situation like this where you have everybody against us, we’ve got to block everything out. Just treat this like a road game,” said Mike Rosario, who led the Gators with 15 points.
Scottie Wilbekin added 13 points for Florida and Casey Prather had 11.
Brown led FGCU with 14 points, and Fieler had 12.
Fieler started the Eagles’ big run, the only one they’d have, with a 3-pointer from the top of the key before a few plays of the sort that earned them their “Dunk City” moniker.
After Comer stole a pass, he ran down the court and threw up an alley-oop pass for the trailing Brown, who delivered a slam that sent the announced crowd of more than 40,000 into a frenzy — except for those in Gator orange.
Comer then flipped another backward pass to Bernard Thompson for a 3-pointer. Then Fieler had another 3-pointer — less than 3 minutes after the first one — for a 15-4 lead only six minutes into the game.
But after Frazier’s second 3, Enfield angrily called timeout. That didn’t stop the Gators’ surge.
Rosario knocked away a pass inside to Eric McKnight, sending the break the other way. Prather grabbed an offensive rebound, and with his back to the basket, basically flipped the ball over his head — and it went in.
The Eagles had 12 turnovers in the first half — one less than they had in each of their first two NCAA tourney games. They had taken half as many shots as Florida (32-16) at the break.
Florida then scored the first seven points of the second half, and the Eagles never really threated again.
“It’s sad we lost tonight, but it was a great ride,” Eagles post player Eddie Murray said. “It hurts right now but when you step back and look at it, it’s all been amazing. I think people really enjoyed watching us play.”