When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, teams that reach the later rounds typically have two or three stars who can carry their team on their backs. For teams to go on special runs, the whole must be better than its parts, with all players making key contributions. For Karl Smesko’s Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, Whitney Knight and Kaneisha Atwater play the starring roles. Knight, the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year, and Atwater, an Atlantic Sun First Team All Conference selection have risen to the occasion in its biggest games this season. Scoring in double figures in 27 of 32 games on the year, Knight’s biggest performance came in a win over Clemson in the Virgin Islands, putting up 28 points on 7-12 shooting, including five three pointers. Atwater has had multiple scoring outbursts, scorching Providence with 33 points on 11-18 shooting, and scoring 32 points against Kennesaw State and 29 points against Jacksonville.
Outside of Knight and Atwater, FGCU boasts multiple scoring threats that have produced well throughout the season. Stephanie Haas has had her ups and downs throughout the year, but put up 30 points against Auburn early in the season, and has had strong performances in the past, including a 15 point outing in last year’s NCAA Tournament against Oklahoma State. Taylor Gradinjan, finally healthy after sustaining two ACL injuries, has been a welcome addition to the rotation. Averaging 6.1 points on the season, Gradinjan posted a career high 23 points against Southern Mississippi, and is shooting 41% from distance which ranks second on the team. Jenna Cobb ranks fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 8.2 points, posting double figures 13 times on the year. The senior scored 16 points against Oklahoma State in last year’s tournament, and has performed well in postseason play in her time at FGCU.
The season ending injury to junior Katie Meador is a tough blow for a player who had come into her own late in the season. Meador had started 5 of the last 6 games before suffering a knee injury just minutes into the A-Sun semifinal game against Jacksonville. In her absence, look for senior Anthi Chatzigiakoumi and junior Jamie Gluesing to take the majority of Meador’s minutes. Chatzigiakoumi posted 17 points against George Washington to open the season, and can provide length and shooting to cause mismatches on the perimeter. Gluesing has seen her minutes reduced from last season, but is a dangerous threat from three-point territory, shooting 44% (14-32) on the year, and is a career 40% shooter from distance.
Point guard DyTiesha Dunson will be the most important player for FGCU if they will make noise in the tournament. The junior from Georgia has been known primarily for her defense during her career at FGCU, but at times has shown to be a capable offensive threat. A good finisher at the rim and a solid free-throw shooter at 76%, Dunson is a player who can spot openings in the defense and take advantage with her speed off the dribble to set up teammates or get all the way to the bucket. Defenses will key in on Knight, Atwater and limiting the perimeter looks, so Dunson will have to play smart and run the offense efficiently in order for the Eagles to have success in the NCAA Tournament.
A first round matchup with Oklahoma State is a rematch from last year’s meeting in the NCAA Tournament in which the 12th seeded Eagles were unable to hold a ten point lead with ten minutes to go, and fell 61-60 in overtime to the 5th seeded Cowgirls. This year’s meeting will be at the Tallahassee Regional and will be televised on ESPN2 at 11:00 A.M. eastern time. The seven seed FGCU earned after a 30-2 regular season that included eight wins over Top 100 RPI foes, is the highest seed an Atlantic Sun team has earned in men’s or women’s basketball in the conference’s history. A victory would send the Eagles off to a matchup against the winner of Florida State-Alabama State. The second seeded Seminoles are 29-4 on the season, and ended the regular season ranked 7th in the country.