Florida Gulf Coast’s Cinderella run ends with loss to Florida in Sweet 16

Once again, Florida played the spoiler.

Seven years ago it was Billy Donovan’s Gators who derailed George Mason’s charmed Final Four ride. Last year, Florida sent No. 15 Norfolk State packing after its stunning upset of second-seeded Missouri.

And on Friday, Florida brought a halt to the feel-good story of this year’s NCAA Tournament, grounding 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast’s high-flying ways with a 62-50 victory at Cowboys Stadium — but not before being shown up by the upstart Eagles in the early going.

With it, No. 2 Florida (29-7) advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight for the third consecutive year. The Gators will face No. 4 seeded Michigan, which upset No. 1 Kansas in overtime, 87-85, earlier Friday.

FGCU (26-11), a school that few in the state of Florida, much less beyond, knew existed before the tournament began, bowed out having made history as the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. For one joyful week along the way, the Eagles reminded fans that college basketball can be both effective and entertaining. And in transforming themselves from streaky low-major to NCAA tournament darling, the Eagles generated a publicity bonanza for their young campus.

“FGCU wasn’t a very well-known school when we started this tournament,” senior guard Sherwood Brown said. “Now the whole nation knows about it.

“I think what we learned, and probably much of American learned, is just believe in yourself — even when no one else believes in you.”

The third seed in the South Region, Florida (29-7) won on superior defense and size, forcing the Eagles into 20 turnovers, dominating the boards (35 rebounds to 28) and getting 16 second-chance points to FGCU’s eight.

“We found and manufactured different ways to score, and I thought we defended really well,” said Florida Coach Bill Donovan after advancing to his fifth region final with the Gators.

But from the jump, FGCU made clear it wasn’t going to be paralyzed by the stage or the stakes. With 85,000 seats, Cowboys Stadium is nearly 20 times the size of Florida Gulf Coast’s 4,500-seat Alico Arena. But FGCU played as if the surreal setting were as familiar as their on-campus home or childhood playground.

With a place in the NCAA tournament’s round of eight on the line, they competed as if they were genuinely playing, and they played as if they were celebrating.

Less than five minutes in, point guard Brett Comer hit Brown (14 points) with a lob pass for the first rousing alley-oop, while Florida could barely hit from point-blank range or far. FGCU also hit its first three three-pointers. Through the first 10 minutes, the Eagles were shooting 75 percent from the field to Florida’s 18 percent.

Fouled on a three-point attempt, FGCU’s Christophe Varidel hit all three from the stripe to make it 24-14 with 5 minutes 23 seconds remaining in the half.

But from there, Florida started flexing its muscle in the front court, where it held a decided size advantage. The Gators pounded the offensive boards and got sorely needed putbacks. And they ramped up their defense, as well, forcing a rash of turnovers and rushed shots to close the half on a 16-2 run. FGCU didn’t score a point for nearly five minutes in that span.

“We did a great job of putting pressure and making those guys feel uncomfortable,” said Florida guard Mike Rosario.

Florida trailed by 11 at one point, but the Gators’ Scottie Welbekin knotted the score at 24 with a jumper. Mike Rosario (15 points) followed with a three-pointer. Florida took a 30-26 lead to the break.

Still, the lead didn’t seem insurmountable. In both of its upsets the previous weekend, FGCU exploded in the second half to put the games away, going on a 21-2 run against No. 2 Georgetown and reeling off 17 unanswered points against No. 7 San Diego State.

But there was no such rally against Florida.

The Gators picked up where they left off, scoring seven unanswered points to open the second half.

“We didn’t have the energy we had in the other two games,” FGCU forward Chase Fieler said. “We weren’t playing with the same fire we were before. At halftime we tried to discuss it, but they just really got us out of our game.”

FGCU’s Eric McKnight snapped the drought with a dunk, and Brown hit a jumper than pulled FGCU within seven. But it was followed by two missed free throws and a turnover that handed the ball, and the momentum, back to Florida.

As the clocked ticked down, Florida fans chanted “Almost Mid-Night!” “Almost Mid-Night!” taunting Cinderella, whose time at the ball was about to end.

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. She has also covered seven Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.

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