With a spot in the ASUN Women’s Basketball Championship Final on the line, the No. 2 FGCU women’s basketball team defeated No. 3 JU 68-64 to advance to its sixth consecutive ASUN Championship Final.
Since the ASUN changed where Championship games are played to higher-seed hosts four years ago, the Eagles will now travel to Deland to take on No. 1 Stetson following the Hatters 78-48 victory over No. 5 Kennesaw State. This is the first time the team will play a Championship Final away from home.
“We understand that Stetson earned the right to host this thing (ASUN Championship Final),” FGCU head coach Karl Smesko said. “They deserve to be in the position they’re in and we understand that it’s going to take a tremendous effort, but we think we’re capable of it.”
After having its 19-point lead erased and cut to three with 2:08 left to play in the fourth, Erica Nelson drove to the lane and came up with a bucket as the shot clock expired to make it a two possession game, 64-59.
Following Nelson’s basket, Taylor Gradinjan drew a charge on the other end to give the Eagles the ball back with 1:03 left to play.
Quickly drawing a foul after drawing the charge, Gradinjan went 1-2 from the line. Following an empty possession for the Dolphins, JU opted not to foul Nelson right away, sending her to the line with 9.7 left on the clock.
Following Nelson’s 2-2 trip from the line to give the Eagles a 67-61 lead, Sherranda Reddick got fouled on a three point attempt and knocked down all three shots to bring the game within three.
The Eagles quickly inbounded the ball to Jordin Alexander and she was sent to the line with 8.1 seconds remaining.
After Alexander went 1-2 from the line, Jillah Moede’s shot came up short and it was too little too late for the Dolphins as FGCU moved one step closer to punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament.
“Overall, today is a really exciting day for our program,” Smesko said. “It’s great to get back to the championship game and have a chance to get back to the NCAA tournament if we can beat a very good team.”
Avenging the Eagles loss to JU in the ASUN Championship Final last season, Nelson scored a career-high 27 points on 8-13 shooting from the clip and 3-4 shooting from long-range.
“Erica (Nelson) had probably her best game of the year for us today,” Smesko said. “She was a big part of the game plan, but not only did she score, she moved the ball to shooters on penetration, found the open kid and the fouls that she drew were critical to get them into foul trouble.”
Rounding out the double figure scorers for FGCU, Alexander and Rosemarie Julien finished with 10 and 12 points respectively.
After a first quarter that saw all 12 of FGCU’s buckets come from inside the paint, the Eagles knocked down 5 shots from long range that sparked a 21-5 run in the second quarter to take a 36-23 lead at the half.
Trailing by as many as 19 in the third quarter, the Dolphins sparked a 10-2 run to end the third to cut the Eagles lead to 11, 49-38.
“There’s other times in the season where a team coming back like that would’ve been bad news,” Alexander said. “I think we responded really well and had good leadership out there calming everyone down.”
Overcoming some stagnant offense to begin the quarter, the Eagles rode a pair of three point plays and 21 combined second half points from Nelson and Alexander to secure the Eagles 25th win of the season.
“Just playing with Jordi (Alexander) is by far the funnest [sic] thing I’ve done in my career,” Nelson said. “It going to be amazing to play up at Stetson and try to bring the Championship home and go to the NCAA.”
Losing its regular season finale against the Hatters that broke the Eagles six season regular-season title streak and gave Stetson the No. 1 seed and the regular season title, FGCU will look to avenge its loss against the Hatters on Sunday, March 12 at 3 p.m.