On Tuesday, March 1, No. 4 FGCU took a major step toward its goal of returning to the NCAA Tournament when the team defeated No. 5-seeded Kennesaw State 74-64 at home in the Atlantic Sun Basketball Championship quarterfinal.
“It was a very tournament-like start with both teams trying to figure it out offensively,” FGCU head coach Joe Dooley said. “I thought that we really struggled guarding the ball, especially early on in the game, and we gave up four or five late clock situations, and they did a great job at attacking us.”
Leading the way for the Eagles in their victory over the Owls was A-Sun All-Conference First Team member Marc-Eddy Norelia with his 13th double-double of the season, scoring 14 points and snatching 12 rebounds. FGCU also had two other players end the night in double digits.
A-Sun All-Freshmen team member Zach Johnson scored 14 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out three assists in yet another strong offensive performance for the Miami native.
Christian Terrell also scored 14 points in the Eagles’ winning effort, finishing the night three-for-three from long-range, also grabbing five rebounds and tallying three assists.
All eight players who saw the court for FGCU contributed offensively when they got their opportunity scoring at least two or more points each.
In a very intense first half, both teams went back and forth trading buckets. After KSU started the game winning the tip, both teams struggled to get it going offensively. While the Eagles consistently out-rebounded the Owls 7-2 in the early going, the Eagles couldn’t find a way to put the ball in the basket.
When the 10-minute mark hit in the half, FGCU guards Julian Debose and Reggie Reid exploded offensively, scoring five points each and giving FGCU a 20-14 lead. The Owls had a response for FGCU’s improved offensive play, continuing to make shots late in the shot clock. KSU guard Yonel Brown took over offensively for them, scoring 14 points in the first half, as FGCU didn’t have an answer for him on defense. FGCU continued to dominate on the glass and take advantage of smaller players in the paint with Antravious Simmons scoring eight points in the half.
Toward the end of the half, Terrell ran a fast break and found Norelia for the layup and the one, giving FGCU a 34-32 lead. After a pair of Simmons’ free throws, FGCU had a narrow 36-34 lead over KSU at the end of the first half.
In the first half, the Eagles outrebounded the Owls 21-9 after getting outrebounded in their previous contest against the Owls. Kennesaw shot the ball better offensively, shooting 54.2 percent from the field compared to FGCU’s 48.1 percent. FGCU struggled from the free-throw line, shooting only 63.6 percent from the stripe.
Both teams came out of the gun trading buckets in the first three minutes of the second half with FGCU leading by only one with just under 17 minutes left in the game. After the timeout, the Eagles took a new approach on defense, switching to a full court press which limited the Owls offensively and helped FGCU play well in transition. After a couple of missed shots for KSU, Terrell found his groove offensively after only scoring a single point in the first half, finding players on the fast break and knocking down the back-to-back threes to give the Eagles a 50-41 lead.
FGCU was also able to keep A-Sun Newcomer of the Year KSU’s Kendrick Ray who averaged 18.9 points per game cold offensively, forcing him to sit out most of the game and only allowing him to score 11 points and play only 19 minutes. Brown, who led the Owls in scoring also went down with a rolled ankle with seven minutes remaining in the game but later returned, ending the night with 19 points. FGCU really started to pull away when it began forcing turnovers and having players like Johnson and Norelia finish every opportunity they had in the paint. Terrell’s three-pointer with three minutes left in the game really sealed the deal for the Eagles, giving them a 72-57 lead. With a strong performance on the glass and in transition, FGCU was able to move on to the semifinals of the A-Sun tournament with a 74-64 victory over KSU.
In the second half, FGCU improved its shooting, three-point percentage and free throw percentages to 53.8, 66.7 and 75 percent. FGCU’s defensive effort in the second half really showed in the KSU numbers, as its shooting percentage from the field went down to 33.3 percent. The Eagles also ended the game, outrebounding the Owls’ 31-19.
In a night that saw all but one A-Sun team take care of business at home, the other quarterfinal matchups around the league shook the conference tournament bracket.
No. 1 UNF defeated No. 8 USC Upstate Tuesday night, 92-69, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds were upset at home when No.7 Stetson defeated No. 2 NJIT, 82-67. Also, No. 6 Lipscomb defeated No. 3 Jacksonville in overtime, 92-89.
FGCU will move on to the second round of the A-Sun Conference Tournament to face No. 1 UNF in Jacksonville at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3.
“I definitely like our chances to win,” Norelia said. “You always have to be confident no matter who you play.”