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New kids on block: Florida Gulf Coast advances

Florida Gulf Coast’s Sherwood Brown, center, and his teammates celebrate a trip to the Sweet 16 in their first NCAA tournament. (Associated Press)
Florida Gulf Coast’s Sherwood Brown, center, and his teammates celebrate a trip to the Sweet 16 in their first NCAA tournament. (Associated Press)
Zach Berman Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – By the time the buzzer sounded, the Philadelphia crowd was on its feet. It was a mix of awe and appreciation for what transpired during the previous two hours, when the best story – and most exciting show – of the NCAA tournament was on full display.

Florida Gulf Coast made history at the Wells Fargo Center, becoming the first 15th seed to advance to the Sweet 16. The 81-71 win over seventh-seeded San Diego State on Sunday night came two days after an upset of second-seeded Georgetown.

The Eagles advanced to play Florida in Arlington, Texas, on Friday.

They transformed throughout the weekend from an unknown Cinderella to a beloved extravaganza, with baskets reserved for highlight reels and assists found more often on playgrounds than NCAA tournaments.

Point guard Brett Comer was the conductor, swiveling passes to spaces that seemed both improbable and unoccupied. And then out of nowhere would come a blue jersey. The Eagles were not modest about their exploits, either, with players both on the court and bench erupting with the type of demonstrative euphoria that most college students would when something that seems too good to be true is actually true.

Comer had 10 points and 14 assists, while Bernard Thompson led them 23 points. Five players reached double figures.

A 17-0 run in the second half turned a 54-52 lead into a 71-52 lead, which was the point when the game raced out of control. Florida Gulf Coast trailed at the half for the first time in 22 games when San Diego State carried a 35-34 lead into the break, although the highlight of the period was an Eagles alley-oop that outdid even the excitement from Friday night.

This time, Eric McKnight finished a Comer lob by extending his right arm behind his head and slamming the ball down with one hand. The crowd erupted in awe. That was just the beginning.

But the Eagles did not win on theatrics alone. They used their fast-break style to create easy baskets in transition and spaced the floor in the halfcourt to give room for their athletes to roam. And just like Friday night’s upset of Georgetown, the Eagles generated momentum throughout the game. Their run came in the second half, and the crowd was on board the entire time.

The story of the NCAA tournament happened right in front of Philadelphia’s eyes. The Eagles arrived here as Fort Myers’ team. By Friday night, they became Philadelphia’s adopted team. By Sunday night, they were America’s team.

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