‘I was in disbelief’: Inside the premature end to FGCU’s season

Taking you inside the sudden end of FGCU’s season

By Logan Butts

Special to High Post Hoops

What happens when a dream season comes to an abrupt end due to off-the-court events? There was no heartbreaking loss on a March Madness buzzer beater or a season-ending injury to a leading scorer for the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles, just a slew of cancellation notifications.

FGCU was having the type of season every team dreams about. They were 30-3, just one win away from a fourth consecutive ASUN Tournament title, and within reach of perhaps the greatest season in program history. And then it all went up in flames, along with the rest of the college basketball landscape and the sports world at large, due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s one of those exciting times that all our players look forward to throughout a season – when you get to play in a conference tournament championship and then the next day you would be seeing who you’re matched up with in the NCAA Tournament. But this year it’s not to be. That’s why when you have these opportunities you shouldn’t take them for granted,” FGCU head coach Karl Smesko said.

“I was in disbelief, we worked so hard the entire year, and it felt like we had so much more to prove,” said Nasrin Ulel, one of the team’s many seniors and the 2019 ASUN Player of the Year.

Fifth-year senior Ashli O’Neal, a graduate transfer from Indiana State, had yet to play in an NCAA Tournament.

“I was very hurt. I still am very hurt. It’s unbelievable to me, and I feel the hurt for all seniors around the country,” O’Neal said. “I was so excited to be able to just play in a championship game and even more excited for the Big Dance. It has always been a dream to win a conference tourney championship and go to the Big Dance and, unfortunately, it will remain a dream.”

Since making the transition to Division I in 2007, FGCU has established itself as one of the premier mid-major women’s basketball programs in the country. They have won 10 of the last 12 ASUN regular season titles and have compiled at least 25 wins in every season for the last decade. They have made either the WNIT or the NCAA Tournament every year since making the leap to DI, including six March Madness appearances.

FGCU has also had a vice grip on the ASUN since joining the conference 13 seasons ago. They have entered the conference tournament as the top seed eight times and had just reached their ninth consecutive ASUN title game. Over the last three seasons they only lost two conference games total, regular season or postseason. They have lost just 18 games to conference opponents in 13 seasons. They were on the verge of a second consecutive (and fourth overall) perfect run through both the regular season league slate and conference tournament. They are 24-2 all time in the ASUN Tournament. And yet, even with all the past success, this might have been their best team yet.

The Eagles spent a good portion of the season ranked in the top-25 of the USA Today Coaches Poll, including a spot in the final poll for the third time in program history. They were 6-2 against RPI top-100 teams on the season, including blowout wins over Duke and UCF and the gauntlet that was the Cancun Challenge in November: Notre Dame, South Florida, and South Dakota State.

They nearly swept the ASUN awards – Smesko was named the Coach of the Year for the third consecutive season and 10th time total. Senior Keri Jewett-Giles earned the rare Player of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year double. Fellow senior Tytionia Adderly won her second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award.

FGCU’s roster was deep and experienced (five of their top six players in minutes played were seniors). They were able to throw out a lineup to combat any situation. They could stroke the three-ball with the best of them, a nation-leading 12 per game, but didn’t live and die behind the arc. They were truly the most dangerous version of themselves when their stable of athletic defenders was unleashed on the perimeter. They led the nation in turnover margin by a significant amount and were the third-most productive team in transition in the country.

In other words, they had the perfect ingredients for a Cinderella recipe.

“It felt great to play with other seniors because they led us to the amount of success we had this past season,” O’Neal said. “With all the experience they’ve had, they brought me in and helped me to lead the team in any way that I could. I looked up to them, even though I was a senior. Coming from a bad program, I admired them everyday and I don’t even think they realized.”

“Honestly, it was so much fun (to play with so many seniors),” Ulel said. “Everyone had the same goal and all the seniors contributed to the success of our team. Whether they played on our scout team, or played a lot of minutes, all our seniors came to play.”

Even if they had not gone on to win the ASUN title game against Liberty (they beat the Flames twice in the regular season), the Eagles were projected to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid. High Post Hoops’ bracketologist had them safely slotted in as a 7-seed.

The Eagles have won games in the NCAA Tournament before, defeating Oklahoma State in a similar 7-10 matchup in 2015 and pulling off the classic 12-5 upset in 2018 over Missouri, but they have never gone on a March Madness “run” to the second weekend. This team looked poised to do so.

“I definitely thought this team was capable of winning in the NCAA Tournament,” Smesko said. “We had a very explosive team that was difficult to guard, and we had a lot of different weapons. We had so many different players that could shoot the three efficiently and take the ball to the rim. We had a team that was really fast in transition, and we could spread out the defense with our shooting. We had really quick kids who could get into space if you were stretched out. To have that type of diversity in your scoring makes you even tougher to match up against. I thought we had a really good team and a chance to win, but we’ll never get a chance to prove it.”

And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom amongst the team. Yes, the news was heartbreaking for players and coaches alike, especially the seniors, but they chose to go out on their own terms – with a net-cutting ceremony to celebrate their ASUN title and everything else they accomplished this season. A fitting end to a dream season.

“I think, regardless of class, everybody’s disappointed that they didn’t get to go to the NCAA tournament, but with seniors there’s a finality to it,” Smesko said. “When we got together the next day after our tournament was canceled, we chose to celebrate our regular season championship. We went down and cut down the nets. We tried to look at it like we appreciate the season that we got to experience rather than dwell on the experiences that we didn’t get to have.”

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