MACON, Ga. — When Florida Gulf Coast University's women's basketball team charged from a hallway in Mercer's University Center with high-pitched yips and yells to hit the floor for warm-ups Saturday, it was the beginning of a historic day for FGCU.
FGCU placed a team in the NCAA tournament for the first time.
For a while Saturday night, it appeared the FGCU men might repeat the feat before the team faltered in the second half and lost the game that would have sent them to the NCAA tournament as well.
The FGCU women buried the Stetson Hatters, 67-39, in 3-pointers on Saturday, and now the A-Sun regular-season and tournament champion Eagles intend to make some noise in the NCAA tournament.
The best bet is Tallahassee — by far the closest of the 16 regional sites for the opening two rounds of the 64-team NCAA tournament field that will be announced on ESPN at 7 p.m. on March 12. The NCAA tournament starts March 17 (in Tallahassee on March 18) and runs through the Final Four, which tips off in Denver on April 1.
FGCU was the only A-Sun school to have both its men's and women's programs reach the tournament finals. In fact, it was the only school to have both teams get past the quarterfinals. Its sixth-seeded men saw their season come to an end with Saturday night's 83-69 loss against top-seeded and defending champ Belmont.
FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw, on-hand at most home games and in animated attendance during the entire A-Sun tourney, doesn't care too much where the women Eagles land.
Tallahassee? Great. Elsewhere? That's great, too.
He's just thrilled they no longer are kept from NCAA play, making the tournament in the first year of eligibility.
"This just means so much," said a beaming Bradshaw, who was sporting an A-Sun championship cap and T-shirt. "We have a quality program. This is going to help with recruiting, help with our national visibility. These women are getting everything they deserve because they worked so hard for it.
"It's going to have a ripple effect, not only throughout the athletic program and the university, but the community at-large. Southwest Florida, they expect this kind of success, and they deserve it."
The 29-2 women's team, undefeated since Dec. 28 and the winner of 21 straight games, has been hovering just outside both Top 25 polls for weeks. The Eagles' stock improved with the A-Sun tourney run during which the Eagles outscored their three foes by a combined 222-155, including Saturday's throttling of second-seeded Stetson (23-10).
Particularly when it comes to the women's field, the NCAA tries to make geographical sense for March Madness. That focus, though, generally is on the higher-seeded teams.
How high can FGCU, whose conference tournament was one of the first in the nation because the A-Sun's tips off so early, climb in the minds of selection committee members who not only fill the field, but construct the seedings?
Hard to say. The highest A-Sun seeding in the past decade was 13th, seven seasons back.
"We're getting much higher than that," FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh said. "One of the committee members happens to be in our conference, and I believe the dialogue is us more toward a 10, 11, 12. And I think that's what we deserve."
FGCU coach Karl Smesko, who built this program 10 years ago and carried it from the NAIA to Division II and now into Division I, nodded.
"I'd be stunned if we're in a 15, 16 (seeding) situation," Smesko said. "I think we've gained a lot of national recognition. We've done well enough in the last four years that enough people know about our program. I think we'll be in a situation where we get a seed we can win from."
Florida International, which now is in the Sun Belt Conference, notched a seventh seed in 1998 and ninth in 1995, the best A-Sun starts ever. Not coincidentally, those FIU teams are the only A-Sun teams to advance to the second round of NCAA play. That's as far as any A-Sun team has made it. The conference's all-time NCAA tournament record is a dismal 2-19.
FGCU, which has wins against defending Big Ten champion Michigan State and another BCS conference program in Virginia Tech, could change that dramatically. That's because the Eagles, who lead the nation in 3-point makes (10.8 per game) are so unique. On the floor at all times are five players who can hit 3s consistently as well as handle and pass the ball efficiently from a high-motion offense.
"We're not built traditionally," Smesko said. "So for anybody that plays us, it's going to be a different style for them to adjust to. We're not really trying to play their game. If we just played the way they do, they obviously have bigger, stronger players that we wouldn't be able to match up with. We feel like if we play our game, we can overcome some of these athletic and size differences. We think we can do special things, or at least have the possibility of doing that."