Eagles taking flight

It is not very often when coming to a university, one of the main attractions to make sure you check out is the women’s basketball team. When I began at FGCU in 2011, I made sure to check out the ladies of the hardwood in action. I could see why it was appealing. Three pointers galore, high scoring, and a great energy around the team that produced major success in the A-Sun conference.

For head coach Karl Smesko, recruiting players with multiple tools down to Fort Myers was always a tough sell. A small school with little tradition, and located in a small conference will find it tough to draw talent away from Florida, Florida State and Miami. In 2015, the FGCU women’s basketball team is as skilled as it has even been - thanks to a blend of abilities that make this team different than any other Coach Smesko has worked with. Key recruits plus talented transfers have meshed together to the most impressive non-conference run the Eagles have put together in women’s hoops history. With victories over the likes of Wichita State, Clemson, Providence, and Cal State Northridge, and close losses at Auburn and against Ohio State in double overtime, a 13-2 mark through 15 games is highly remarkable.

Whitney Knight came to Fort Myers with the hopes of leading FGCU to new heights. The 6-foot-3 guard/forward from North Carolina has endured growing pains figuratively and literally in her four years; she tore her ACL before her sophomore year, but has blossomed into arguably one of the best players in the Southeast. Averaging 15.6 points and 5.8 rebounds and shooting a blistering 46% from the three-point range, Knight spearheads the Eagle attack.

In her second season at FGCU, VCU transfer Kaneisha Atwater has been the heart of the defense that has limited opponents to just a shade over 61 points a game. Atwater has had huge scoring outbursts this season, averaging 21 points in victories against Quinnipiac and Harvard, and netting 33 against Providence last month. Junior guard Stephanie Haas has also been a steady contributor, using her crafty offensive abilities in big ways this year. Haas poured in 30 against Auburn earlier this season, and is averaging 12.3 points.

Aiding the offensive attack is the emergence of senior Anthi Chatzigiakoumi. The 6’1 forward from Greece has shown flashes in her Eagle career, but has thrived with more minutes this season. Opening the season with a 17 point output against George Washington, Chatzigiakoumi has averaged 13 points her last two games and is shooting a splendid 41% from distance on the year. Her consistency throughout the season will be an important ingredient to FGCU’s success.

Taylor Gradinjian is another player who has been a welcome addition to the rotation. Her troubles with two ACL injuries in her career are well-documented, but she has shown the talent that has been in her since she stepped foot on campus in 2012. Her 23 point outing against Southern Miss was a key to the victory on December 6th, and her perimeter shooting (50% on 34 attempts thus far) can be a weapon going forward off the bench.

One player who is looking forward to the beginning conference play is Jenna Cobb. The senior transfer from Butler is in her second season at FGCU and has struggled from the outside this season, only shooting 31% after connecting on 48 trifectas last season. Averaging only 6 points in her last eight games and only 8.3 points on the season, Cobb’s leadership has proved valuable to this team. Her ability to shoot from the perimeter will have to rise as the year progresses if the Eagles want to reach new heights. In last season's three postseason games, Cobb shot 14-24 from three-point land, and can heat up with the best of them when she gets going.

Starting Saturday night against archrival Stetson at Alico Arena, the conference run begins with a stern test. The Hatters have met the Eagles in the A-Sun title game the last three seasons, and are the top contender alongside the Eagles in the Atlantic Sun. Coming into Saturday’s tilt, Stetson boasts four players averaging over 12 points a game. However, the team shoots just 29 percent from the outside. With a full complement of weapons at his disposal, Karl Smesko has the pieces to take Florida Gulf Coast to another level. Anything less than an NCAA tournament appearance, with at least one victory, would be tough to swallow for Eagle fans across Southwest Florida.

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