ARLINGTON, Texas — SEC champion Florida is going to its third straight NCAA regional final, while the improbable tournament journey for Florida Gulf Coast is over.
The Eagles, the No. 15 seed few people even knew of on Selection Sunday, had their season ended just before midnight Friday with a 62-50 loss to one of the big schools from Florida.
The high-flying team from “Dunk City” jumped out to an early 11-point lead. But the No. 3 seed Gators (29-7) and their roster filled with NCAA tourney experience were just too strong and too good. FGCU matched its season low for points.
Michael Frazier made a pair of 3-pointers from the left side, in front of the Gulf Coast bench, to start a 16-0 run late in the first half. Those were Frazier’s only baskets of the game, but they came during a 4½-minute span when the Eagles (26-11) suddenly couldn’t even get off a shot. They missed their only field goal attempt while turning the ball over four times in that span.
That slump finally ended when Sherwood Brown, their dreadlocked senior showman, made a layup in the final minute to get Florida Gulf Coast back within 30-26 by halftime.
But FGCU players walked down the steps off the raised court at Cowboys Stadium at the break with their heads down — much different than the team that looked so loose and ready for a good time after an early 11-0 run — similar to extended spurts they had in upsetting No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 seed San Diego State.
The Gators 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.
Michigan overcame a 14-point deficit earlier Friday and beat No. 1 seed Kansas 87-85 in overtime.
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 high-flying dunks and alley-oops weren’t there and Florida forced 20 turnovers.
FGCU heads back to Fort Myers (aka Dunk City), where they have 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.
Mike Rosario led the Gators with 15 points, while Scottie Wilbekin had 13 and Casey Prather 11.
Brown led FGCU with 14 points, and Chase 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 the kind of plays that earned their “Dunk City” moniker.
After Brett Comer stole a pass, he ran down the court and threw up an alley-oop pass for the trailing Brown, delivering 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 Fielder had another 3-pointer — less than 3 minutes after the first one — for a 15-4 lead only six minutes into the game.
Could the first No. 15 seed to make it into the round of 16 actually go further?
Not against Florida, the team that had been here so many times before. The FGCU run came too early, leaving the Gators plenty of time to recover.
After Frazier’s second 3, Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield — the gap-toothed coach married to a former model — was angry when he called timeout and gathered his team together. The timeout and another attempted lob pass inside didn’t stop the Gators surge.
Rosario knocked away the pass inside to Eric McKnight, sending the break the other way. Casey Prather grabbed an offensive rebound, and with his back to the basket, basically flipped the ball over his head and it went in.
McKnight missed two free throws after that, and Wilbekin penetrated for a short jumper to tie the game at 24. Rosario hit a go-ahead 3-pointer after a steal by Will Yeguete.
Eddie Murray had a steal for Florida Gulf Coast, but Patric Young took it right back and got it to Boynton. He made the layup while being fouled, and added the free throw for a 30-24 lead.
The Eagles has 12 turnovers in the first half — one less than they had in each of their first two NCAA tourney games. They took twice as many shots (32-16) as Florida, but that wasn’t enough.
There was still 10 minutes left on the halftime clock when FGCU returned to the court, and players started taking shots even as their mascot was on the court doing a halftime routine.
But Florida scored the first seven points of the second half. Boynton drove for a layup and was fouled before making the free throw. Rosario then drove for a shot off the glass and after another FGCU turnover had a floater that rattled in before Enfield called timeout with his team suddenly down 37-26.
But they never threatened and soon their NCAA run was over.