PHILADELPHIA — Florida Gulf Coast went from shocking the college basketball world to downright impressing it. And the Eagles were smiling the whole time.
Playing loose and easy, little-known FGCU beat San Diego State 81-71 on Sunday to become the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” said Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield, whose players tossed him in the air and poured water on him in raucous celebration before his postgame interviews. “We try to have fun, get serious when we have to.
“Our goal was to make history and we did it.”
The next opponent for the upstart state school will be the main campus, third-seeded Florida, on Friday night in the South Regional semifinal in Dallas.
“We tried to scrimmage them early in the season in the preseason,” Enfield said. “Now we get our shot,”
Bernard Thompson had 23 points and Sherwood Brown added 17 for FGCU, the 16-year-old school in just its second season being eligible for postseason play.
In its first-ever NCAA tournament game on Friday, the Atlantic Sun champion busted brackets everywhere with an upset win over No. 2 Georgetown, a game the Eagles took control of with a 21-2 run in the second half.
It went much the same way against San Diego State.
This time the run was 17-0 and Brown, who was saddled early in the second half with foul trouble, had eight of the first 10 points of it. When it was over the Eagles led 71-52 with 4:19 to play and the only decisions left were how the players and fans were going to celebrate.
Brown stuck out his tongue after every big basket, often in the direction of the hundreds of Eagles fans jammed into one section.
Even when the game was tight, he and his teammates looked they were glad to be on the court. The Eagles waved their arms and played along with a lively crowd that came to see an upset. There were big smiles and high-fives.
In short, they showed a kind of joy that’s often missing from high stakes, high drama games in March.
The notoriously tough Philly fans loved them back. One seated behind the FGCU bench held a sign — “Fly, Eagles, Fly!” — the motto of the NFL team that plays across the street.
And after it was all over, the whole team joined in a bird dance that the players on the bench had been doing during the game.
“I know I can say for all the players, this was the biggest game for us. None of us have played on this stage,” point guard Brett Comer said. “We are blessed to be here.”
FGCU played like it had nothing to lose. And really, the Eagles didn’t. Given their school’s short history, nobody expected them to win a game at the NCAA tournament, let alone two.
Comer finished with 10 points and 14 assists.
Jamal Franklin had 20 points and 11 rebounds for the seventh-seeded Aztecs (23-11).
Franklin spoke with Brown after the game.
“I just told him just keep being the leader that he is, make sure the ball is in his hands, make sure he does what he has to do to keep his team rolling,” Franklin said.
Xavier Thames’ layup brought the Aztecs within 54-52 with 11:33 to play but the Eagles were off on their spurt about 90 seconds later. FGCU held San Diego State without a field goal for 7 1-2 minutes as it again pulled away again from a team with much bigger national profile.
“We just tried to keep a steady pace and tried to wear them down. We think we can play with anybody in the country,” center Chase Fieler said. “When we got the running game going it felt like a home game.”
The Eagles shot 55.9 percent for the game (33 of 59), including going 7 of 18 from 3-point range.
The Aztecs finished at 44.3 percent (27 of 61) and were 8 of 23 from beyond the arc.
FGCU had one of its highlight plays in the first half when Comer flipped the ball up toward the rim and a flying Eric McKnight grabbed it for a one-hand jam with 8:50 to play that woke up the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center.
Suddenly it sounded a lot like Friday night, when the Eagles had several jams on lob passes that were a big part of the Georgetown upset.
McKnight was asked if that was his best dunk.
“I don’t rate them,” he said, “but it was one of my best ones.”