PHILADELPHIA -- One is collegiate royalty, both academically and athletically -- a gothic fortress along the Potomac River that both educates world leaders and trains professional basketball players. The other is barely dropped from the educational womb, established as a college only 22 years ago and having first accepted students in 1997, a tract of new buildings and inland shoreline among snowbirds in southwestern Florida. It is the unique beauty of the NCAA tournament that two such teams as Georgetown and Florida Gulf Coast University could find common ground on 94 feet of varnished wood, and it is the enduring power of that event that their coming together could produce an upset that was unlike any other in its history.
Georgetown had won 25 games and tied for the regular season championship in the final year of the mighty and original Big East, duly earning a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance. Florida Gulf Coast University, so new to academics and sports that its coach says it is often confused with Gulf Coast Community College, hundreds of miles away in Panama City Beach, had won 24 games and earned the automatic NCAA bid that goes with winning the Atlantic Sun conference tournament, albeit as a lowly 15 seed. On reputation and history, it was a mismatch of epic proportions. But the FGCU Eagles would have nothing of history, except their own.
Here, then, was the message delivered by 43-year-old Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield, both throughout the day Friday and in the Eagles' locker room at the Wells Fargo Center before the game: "Stay loose.'' And here were the words shouted in the locker room before the game by senior guard Sherwood (Wood) Brown, his voice rising from beginning to end, as recalled by his teammates: We deserve to be here. Nobody gave us an at-large bid to this tournament. We had to earn our way by winning the conference tournament. We're going to have to earn it tonight. Now let's go out and take it.
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What transpired in the ensuing two hours will stand as one of the most improbable outcomes in the history of the tournament. A victory of the commoner over the king. Yet among flesh-and-blood athletes, it was quite something else. FGCU (and soon these Eagles will need to shorten that mouthful) defeated Georgetown, 78-68, not in some watered-down hybrid of pure basketball meant to equalize unequals, but rather on the shoulders of a five-minute, second-half hail of defensive pressure, fearless high-speed offense and ridiculous long lob passes converted in rattling dunks that reduced Georgetown to ponderous (and eventually sullen) spectators. It was just the seventh time in the 64-team era that a No. 15 seed had knocked off a No. 2, (though the third time in two years, after a gap of more than a decade)."You know,'' said Georgetown coach John Thompson III after the game, "They outplayed us tonight.'' It was a staggering four words of understatement. Georgetown has lost five consecutive game to double digit seeds, an ignominious record.
"We're long, we're athletic and we like to run,'' said Enfield, standing outside the FGCU locker room long after the win. "I felt if we could get Georgetown into our kind of game, we have a real good chance to win.'' These words are antithetical to the concept of the upset, which is often achieved when a slower team grinds a faster one down to its speed; and to the nature of college basketball in 2013, where half-court offense is so tightly managed and coaches so controlling that scores struggled to reach 60. FGCU, located in Fort Myers, Fla., is the opposite of all that.
They came into the game as a tournament oddity, a quaint story for writers and broadcasters to tell quickly before the Hoyas dispatched them back to the Sunshine State. Not only were its oldest alumni short of 40 years old, but its head coach had successfully started -- and maintains an equity share in -- a software company that was worth more than $100 million when he removed himself from day-to-day operations to become an assistant coach at Florida State in 2006; and married a supermodel. (And this was all after coaching in the NBA and starting his own basketball talent development business). The Eagles' players said funny, self-deprecating things, like fifth-year senior forward Eddie Murray, a native of North Fort Myers, who talked about seeing wild boar, bobcats and alligators walking the campus roads in the early days of construction. One of their rotation guards is 6-2 junior Christophe Varidel, who is from Switzerland by way of a prep school in Worcester, Mass. They were the perfect cuddly one-and-done.
"I'm sure nobody gave us much of a chance,'' said Murray.
Now they are known as something else altogether, something far more compelling and genuine. They are the team that sparred through an ugly first half with Georgetown, leading 24-22 at the break. And then after the Hoyas pulled into a 31-31 tie with just under 17 minutes to play, and seemed to be coming to life, they went on a 21-2 streak, never easing off the gas pedal. Included in the run were four flying dunks, two by the 6-8 Murray and two by 6-8 junior forward Chase Fieler, three of them on long passes from sophomore point guard Brett Comer, who finished with 12 points, 10 assists and just two turnovers.
"We just kept attacking them until they cracked,'' said sophomore guard Bernard Thompson. "And they cracked. They really couldn't match our energy or anything.''
There would be a desperate comeback. Florida Gulf Coast's lead shrank from 15 points (62-47) with just over four minutes to play to just four, 72-68, after a three-pointer by Georgetown's Markel Starks with 52.4 seconds to play. But even in the midst of that run, FGCU did not alter its personality. Leading 65-58 with just under two minutes to play, the Eagles beat Georgetown pressure, but instead of backing the ball out, Comer threw a long, high lob to Fieler, who plucked it from the air high above the rim and slammed it home, extending the lead to nine points at the time.
It was a stunningly brave play. When it was pointed out to Comer that such plays are not in the late-game, protect-the-lead handbook, he said, "We don't usually play by the handbook.'' Enfield went further: "I've got some crazy dudes on my team,'' he said. "I say that in a very loving way. When [Comer] threw that, I thought it was coming to me.'' Guards Brown and Thompson led the Eagles in scoring, Fieler and Murray in flying.
Their dream has been accelerated now. It began, in a sense, when Enfield was an assistant at Florida State in the late winter of 2011, just two years ago, looking to become a head coach. He had been a star player at Division III Johns Hopkins and a successful coach and entrepreneur, by nature a risk-taker and innovator. He had been an NBA assistant (shooting coach with Bucks from 1994-'96 and full assistant with the Celtics from 1998-2000) and then had privately consulted with teams and players from 2000-'06 and also, with a partner, launching a successful software document company. He went to Florida State in 2006, he says, "Because I wanted a more stable lifestyle,'' for his young family, including his wife, the former Amanda Marcum, a successful fashion model whom he met in New York.
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FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanaugh was sitting at a baseball game between his school and Columbia in March 2011 when he called Enfield. "I expected a five-minute call,'' says Kavanaugh. "I was sitting in the bleachers. During the call, I walked up to my office and logged onto my computer and started looking things about Andy's career. It turned into a 45-minute call.''
Enfield was hired and Florida Gulf Coast went 15-17 a year ago. They scheduled aggressively for 2013, taking on a schedule that included Miami (whom they beat), VCU, Iowa State, Duke and St. John's, the latter three all on the road. "Going to those places give us confidence that we could play with anybody,'' said Murray.
They first gathered on Thursday morning in a ballroom at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Philadelphia, and walked thorough some sets for the game. (Some of the Eagles had eaten dinner and watched games at a nearby sports bar the previous night). At 9:30 a.m. they had a shootaround at Wells Fargo and spent the rest of the day lounging. During pregame warmups, Reggie Miller, working for TBS, shouted to Brown, "Let's go Wood,'' which Fieler says energized the team.
Two hours later the game ended with Comer dribbling upcourt, pumping his right fist and then flipping the game ball to a referee before embracing teammates. They are a curiosity no more.