For much of the school year, Wednesdays have been the most generic day out of the week for me. Two classes, an off day from work, and a calm night. This Wednesday, however, was the most electric day on campus since I came to FGCU nearly seven months ago. With North Florida coming to town, it was Senior Night, honoring Marcus Blake, Nate Hicks, Jamail Jones, and arguably the two most influential athletes in FGCU history, Bernard Thompson and Brett Comer. There was also an A-Sun regular season championship on the line. Win, and the Eagles would clinch home court advantage all the way through the conference tournament. Not to mention the most famous college basketball announcer in the country, Dick Vitale, was at Alico Arena for a book signing. Everywhere I went on campus, there was an added sense of energy.
"Tonight's the night where FGCU silences the doubters and critics," I remember thinking to myself in the afternoon. "Tonight's when Dunk City sends a message telling the rest of the conference that this is still theirs."
Sadly, that message was put on hold. North Florida came out with their own point to prove. They knocked down jump shots and played a lockdown defense that kept the Eagles from getting good looks at the basket. Their smooth defensive shifts kept Comer (6 points, 10 assists) from getting to the rim, which made him a non-factor in the scoring category. Thompson was held in check with a mere 7 points on a paltry 3 of 14 from the floor. The Ospreys' offense was efficient, and their bigs were able to bully rebounds away from the Eagles. Overall, UNF looked better than FGCU in every facet of the game Wednesday night. The fun at The Nest was spoiled, and the implications of the loss could change the entire field of the conference tournament.
Beau Beech's hot shooting carried UNF in the first half. Beech came out firing away, scoring 11 of the Ospreys' first 15 points. FGCU countered with Marc-Eddy Norelia (19 points, 9-13 FG), who scored all 10 of their first points. Highlighted by a nasty transition alley-oop from Comer to Julian DeBose (14 points, 5-9 FG), the Eagles went on a 11-0 run to grab a 27-19 lead and shift all the momentum in their favor. In impressive fashion, UNF weathered the storm, and was able to get a buzzer-beating three pointer from Dallas Moore to take a 39-35 lead into the half.
FGCU came out of the half fighting, but could never tie or retake the lead. Demetris Morant (4 points, 7 rebounds, 5 blocks) gave the fans hope on multiple occasions with an earth shaking put-back dunk off a Norelia missed layup, and 4 big blocks, but that was just about it. Behind Demarcus Daniels' 5-5 from the floor in the second half, the Ospreys were able to turn their lead to double digits. With the game winding to a close, Beau Beech drove the baseline and got fouled after making a layup. As he got up, he turned to the student section and beat his chest. The Ospreys of North Florida had not only beaten the Eagles for the second time this season, but overpowered them on their home court.
Despite the loss, head coach Joe Dooley is confident in his team's ability to bounce back. "If you're a man, you line up, you play like you're suppose to play, you prepare tomorrow like you're suppose to play, and we'll rally," Dooley said. "We're going to line up on Saturday and play as hard as we can. There's still a lot of season to play for. Now this is a setback, but I think until some things go south, you can't find out how good you can be."
FGCU heads north this weekend to conclude the season on the road at Jacksonville. With a win, they will earn their second Atlantic Sun regular season title in as many years. Assuming North Florida beats Stetson, they will share the title with FGCU. Due to the Eagles' loss Wednesday, UNF will hold the tie-breaker for home court advantage in the conference tournament. The only way FGCU can earn the top overall seed is with a win Saturday, and a UNF loss to last-placed Stetson. Regardless, the Eagles are focused on rebounding and closing the regular season on a high note against the Jacksonville Dolphins this Saturday at 2:00 in the afternoon.