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Women’s Basketball Heads to ASUN Title Game After Semifinal Win Over Austin Peay

Jessica Piland

On March 12, the FGCU women’s basketball team entered the ASUN Women’s Basketball Championship tournament semifinals round where the Eagles would face off against the seventh-seeded Austin Peay Governors. With a trip to the conference tournament final on the line, the Eagles took care of business by cruising past the Governors 74-52 on their way to their 13th consecutive ASUN championship game appearance.

In the quarterfinals, the Eagles earned a close win over the Jacksonville Dolphins. After defeating the eighth-seeded Kennesaw State Owls in the first round of the conference tournament, the Governors took down the second-seeded Stetson Hatters in an upset victory to set up this matchup. The Eagles defeated the Governors on the road on Jan. 27 65-54 in the teams’ most recent game against each other.

With a trip to the final on the line, FGCU got out to an 8-2 lead in less than three minutes. Five of those eight points came from fifth-year student Uju Ezeudu courtesy of a layup and 3-pointer. Then, the game began to slow down for both teams.

Austin Peay got within four points of FGCU’s lead at 10-6. That was until the Eagles finished out the first quarter in which they outscored the Governors 9-2 after senior Dolly Cairns nailed two straight 3-pointers before fifth-year student Ajulu Thatha hit a three as the buzzer sounded as FGCU took an early 19-8 lead.

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Starting the second quarter, the Governors got to work early by putting up the first five points of the quarter unanswered. A basket by the Eagles stopped that run by the Governors continued to push closer as they cut the lead to just four points at 21-17.

The game was a back-and-forth contest for the rest of the first half. Each time that FGCU stretched out their lead again to six or seven points, Austin Peay responded. But the Eagles didn’t allow the Governors to get any closer than within four points as the Eagles went into halftime up 32-27 in a close game so far.

A lot of that had to do with Austin Peay holding redshirt junior Emani Jefferson, FGCU’s highest scorer and the ASUN Conference’s Player, Defensive Player and Newcomer of the Year, to zero points in the first half.

The beginning of the third quarter continued the way the end of the first half was. That was until the Eagles went on a 12-0 run in just over three minutes. At the end of that run, the Eagles had pushed the lead to 51-33.

From that point on, the Governors were playing catch up but were ultimately unsuccessful in the effort. At the end of the third quarter, the Eagles led 55-43. While Austin Peay was able to cut the lead down to as little as 11 points, it was too little too late as FGCU came away with a hard fought 74-52 victory to move on to the ASUN Conference Championship Final.

The second half performance overall by the Eagles helped the team to extend their lead. But for the defense to shut down the Governors’ offense, that was a key component of FGCU’s second half success to head coach Karl Smesko.

“I just liked the defensive intensity. There was like a spell of about two minutes where I thought either we were tired or were a little bit behind on some plays and there was a timeout,” Smesko said. “When they came out of the timeout, everybody was locked back in and we were making it really difficult for them to get good shots. They’re very patient and they work to either get to the rim or throw it inside. After that timeout, I thought we were exceptional the rest of the way.”

Despite Jefferson only putting up eight points in the win, other players stepped up when needed throughout the game. Ezeudu finished the game with a double-double behind 18 points and 11 rebounds, while graduate student Shekinah Guthrie came off the bench and delivered 11 points in just 14 minutes.

The other standout performer for the Eagles was Cairns, who had 16 points, made some impactful steals and shot 6/8 from the field. Cairns also achieved a milestone in the win as she recorded 1,000 career points. She had this to say after her performance in the semifinals.

“Just trying to step up when my number was called. Like I said before, sticking to the game plan and just trying to bring the energy,” Cairns said. “It’s gonna be my first conference championship that I’m playing in, so it really means a lot to me and I’m very excited for it.”

FGCU will host the 2024 ASUN Championship Final against the third-seeded Central Arkansas Sugar Bears later today as an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is on the line. The Eagles are looking to capture their seventh consecutive ASUN Conference tournament title, while the Sugar Bears are heading to their first ASUN final and hoping to play spoiler.

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About the Contributors
James Curtis
James Curtis, Eagle News Sports Editor
James Curtis is a senior majoring in journalism and minoring in global studies. He is from Tampa, FL, and has known he wanted to be a journalist since taking a journalism class in seventh grade. He has been involved in sports for his whole life, including swimming competitively all the way through high school. His goal now is to be a sports journalist. When not covering sports games or writing stories, he's usually spending his free time with his friends or watching YouTube.
Jessica Piland
Jessica Piland, Eagle News Photo Editor
Jessica Piland is a senior majoring in political science and minoring in global studies. She found her passion for photography during her senior year of high school after shooting some film for fun with her grandfather’s camera from the 80s. In addition to her work as photo editor for Eagle News, she works as a staff photographer for FGCU Athletics and is a photography intern with the University Marketing and Communications department. As she enters her third year as photo editor, she is excited for the fun stories, campus events, and breaking news that Eagle News will be covering!

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