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Women’s Basketball Soars into the NCAA Tournament with Seventh Consecutive ASUN Championship Win

Jessica Piland/FGCU Athletics

Over the past five months, the FGCU women’s basketball team has worked to defend its 2023 ASUN Championship title. On Saturday, March 16, the Eagles were granted that opportunity against the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bears. The Eagles clawed their way to their seventh straight conference title with a dominant 76-47 victory.

The Eagles entered the ASUN Conference Tournament seeded first after going undefeated in conference play. With the first seed, the Eagles were granted a bye from the opening round of the tournament. They could host every one of their conference tournament games, as the higher seeded team was the host site for each matchup.

FGCU’s first tournament matchup saw them face the ninth seeded Jacksonville University Dolphins in the quarterfinal round. They erased a 24 point deficit late in the second half to no avail, as the Eagles scraped away with the 76-69 win once Jacksonville got into foul trouble later in the game.

With this victory, the Eagles advanced to the semifinals, slated to play the seventh seeded Austin Peay Governors. Unlike their quarterfinal matchup, FGCU had time to prepare for their opponent, and it showed once the game got underway. The Eagles walked away with a 74-52 victory to punch their ticket to the ASUN Women’s Basketball Championship.

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Central Arkansas entered this matchup having never beaten FGCU since joining the ASUN conference in 2021. The most recent matchup between these teams saw the Eagles beat the Sugar Bears by double digits, with a 65-43 victory. 

The ASUN Championship marked the first time these programs have met in postseason competition.

The Eagles started the game on the back foot as the Sugar Bears got points on the board early. This lead would stand for the first minutes of the quarter until fifth year Ajulu Thatha made two foul shots and a three to give FGCU a 5-3 advantage. 

This lead grew as senior Dolly Cairns and redshirt junior Emani Jefferson scored a combined 12 points to give the Eagles a 21-11 lead exiting the first quarter.

Both teams’ high-powered offenses were put on the backburner in the second quarter as the Sugar Bears and the Eagles were not able to score. Central Arkansas shot for 18.8% from field goal range compared to the Eagles 23.5%. Most of FGCU’s points during the second quarter came from turnovers, which earned them 10 points through the first half of play. The quarter ended with the Eagles leading 32-17 over the Sugar Bears.

“They’re a very good defensive team, and they made their decision that they were really gonna protect the paint, back off some of our players and kind of live with the results of the shooting,” FGCU Head Coach Karl Smesko said. “It worked for a half because we didn’t shoot a really good percentage.”

Exiting the half, the Eagles looked like a completely different team. They began to utilize the three-point line. Over the next two quarters, they shot for 10-21, leading to 14 three-pointers throughout the night.

The Eagles outscored the Sugar Bears by 16 points over the next 20 minutes of play, winning by their largest margin in tournament play of 29 points, 76-47. FGCU went on to win their seventh consecutive ASUN Tournament Championship, their 11th championship in program history.

Jefferson was the player of the game, scoring 20 points throughout it. This was a dramatic turnaround from her semifinal game against the Austin Peay Governors, which saw her score single digits, her worst scoring game since mid-January. She was able to end conference play on a high note with her seventh 20 point game of the season.

She was one of three Eagles who were selected to the ASUN All-Tournament team. Jefferson was joined by Cairns and fifth-year Uju Ezeudu on this list, who all were able to score double-digit points throughout the night. Ezeudu was named the conference tournament’s most valuable player who combined for 49 points through FGCU’s three tournament games.

“We prove ourselves every night,” Ezeudu said. “I mean, I don’t really care what people expect [of] us or don’t expect of us because we lost a lot of people last year, and we’ve returned.”

With the ASUN Championship, the Eagles were granted an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. They have faced four tournament-caliber teams to this point: the University of Southern California Trojans, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, the Duke University Blue Devils, and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. The Eagles went 1-3 against these teams, including a one-point victory over the 18th ranked Tar Heels.

“It was a great team effort,” Smesko said. “Everybody contributed, and we’re really excited about getting to the NCAA tournament.”

In the Eagles’ last two appearances, they made the second round, and they look to do so again. They will face the fifth-seeded University of Oklahoma Sooners on March 23 at 4 begin their tournament endeavors.

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About the Contributor
Jeffrey Hrunka
Jeffrey Hrunka, Eagle News Assistant Sports Editor
Jeffrey Hrunka is a junior double majoring in communications and journalism with a concentration in public relations. Jeffrey is from Fort Myers where his interest in sports journalism originated after falling in love with the world of motorsports. When he’s not working for Eagle News, he is usually spending time with friends, watching the New York Giants lose, or chilling in the pool.

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