PHILADELPHIA -- Six times in NCAA Tournament history, a No. 15 seed had beaten a No. 2 seed in the opening round of the tournament. Each time the victory was attended by a nationwide flurry of discovery and excitement. And each time that flurry lasted just 48 hours, as the 15 seed fell in the second round, hung over from adulation and lacking the depth and endurance to sustain a run to the Sweet 16 or deeper. That all ended, spectacularly and wildly, Sunday night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Florida Gulf Coast University, a team unlike any other in the history of March Madness, advanced into the second weekend of the tournament with a massive bandwagon of new fans behind it.
The Eagles, loosed from their 16-year-old campus in Southwestern Florida, with their entrepreneur coach (Andy Enfield) and his model wife, roster of the unwanted and undiscovered and array of fearless fast break dunks and no-look passes, blitzed San Diego State, 81-71, the same way they dismantled Georgetown two nights earlier. This time it was a blinding 17-0 run lasting just over five minutes of the second half. It turned a narrow, 54-52 lead into a 71-52 margin with 4:19 to play in the game. By the time it was finished, No. 7 San Diego State had all but walked off the floor, reduced to hangdog spectators in America's newest highlight reel.
The Eagles (26-10 and winners of the Atlantic Sun Conference) were again led by the fearless and dazzling point guard Brett Comer. He scored eight points and handed out 13 assists, many of them on lob passes and no-looks leading to dunks by FGCU's deep array of athletic inside players. And again, the Eagles' voracious backourt of Bernard Thompson (23) and Sherwood Brown (17) combined for 40 points. Most of all, FGCU continued to fly -- almost literally -- in the fact of a modern college basketball game dominated by defense, over-coaching and low scoring, forcing fast breaks and long, daring passes at every turn.
They advanced to a delicious matchup with Florida on Friday in Arlington, Texas. The Gators are the giant power from far to the north in their home state. A school whose celebrity head coach, Billy Donovan, will be asked if he recruited any of the Eagles and will have to answer honestly that he did not. It will be yet another matchup a little unlike any other in the tournament's history.
The decisive segment of the game was carved from another era. Clinging to a 54-52 lead over San Diego State (which beat Oklahoma in the first round and finished its season at 23-11), the Eagles intensified their defensive pressure and ran off misses and steals with aplomb. It started innocently, with a single free throw from Brown, who then hit a three-pointer. Before the run was over, San Diego State had failed to score on nine consecutive possessions. Brown and Thompson each scored five points in the run and right after San Diego State finally scored, FGCU sophomore Eric McKnight slammed home a dunk from Comer to bury the Aztecs with just over four minutes left. And at the final horn, it was FGCU's ebullient junior Christophe Varidel, from Switzerland, who ran 20-rows high into the stands as FGCU fans chanted, "Sweet 16! Sweet 16!" Then Comer and Brown hugged courtsisde. The party rolls on, making history.