Stetson makes intriguing run to A-Sun final against FGCU

Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast will meet in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game, and the big winner could be North Florida.

That's some real March Madness.

Stetson (12-21) is ineligible to appear in the NCAA Tournament, so the Hatters' season - win or lose - will end after Sunday night's title matchup in Fort Myers, Florida. If the Hatters win, then North Florida will get the A-Sun's automatic berth in the NCAA field because it won the regular-season crown. And if FGCU (19-13) wins, the ''Dunk City'' darlings of the 2013 tournament will be headed back to the Big Dance.

''We're sending a champion,'' Atlantic Sun Commissioner Ted Gumbart told The Associated Press. ''Tournament champion or regular-season champion, we're sending a champion.''

But the circumstances surrounding this game are certain to add plenty of intrigue.

Stetson is ineligible for the NCAAs this year because of a substandard Academic Progress Report score, stemming in part from the school's decision to let two players transfer without restrictions four years ago. The school appealed the postseason ban, and the A-Sun decided last fall that Stetson should be able to play in the tournament because no current players were part of the APR problem.

They might seem like spoilers, but the Hatters don't view themselves that way.

''We can be one of the few teams in college basketball that can say we won our last game and went out a champion,'' Stetson coach Corey Williams said. ''That's the beauty of all of this.''

There were other reasons, such as the league not wanting a seven-team tournament, but ''fairness to the student-athlete'' was the prime consideration in letting Stetson into the conference postseason field, Gumbart said.

And the Hatters have taken full advantage.

''It's weird and I've never been in this situation before,'' FGCU coach Joe Dooley said. ''If you're Corey, you say, `Let's go out and have some fun and win this championship.' And we'll tell our guys the same thing. We've come this far, so why not finish it? It's a weird situation, we know that, but the one thing we can't do is overthink it.''

Stetson, the No. 7 seed in the field, knocked off No. 2 seed NJIT in the quarterfinals, then ousted No. 6 seed Lipscomb in the semifinals. And the Hatters - who have 12 players, all of whom should be back next season - just beat FGCU to close the regular season.

''They believe,'' Williams said. ''This has nothing to do with being a spoiler. We've never looked at it any other way than us wanting to win the conference tournament and putting a banner in the Edmunds Center.''

Even without the NCAA ban, the Hatters could become a most unlikely success story.

Stetson has won three straight and could notch its first four-game winning streak since February 2013. This is the 15th consecutive season that the Hatters won't finish over .500 - they were 16-16 in 2007-08 for their best record over that span - and they're in their first A-Sun title game since 1994.

''They're playing the best basketball at the right time,'' Williams said.

North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll said he won't be rooting for the Hatters on Sunday, even though they essentially hold his team's NCAA fate in their hands.

If FGCU wins, North Florida will play in the NIT.

''I won't even watch that game,'' Driscoll said. ''For me to be rooting for somebody would be against what I believe in as far as my faith is considered and as far as what I believe in. I'm not rooting for anybody. I just don't believe in that kind of stuff.''

FGCU can also say it is playing its best basketball now. The Eagles went to North Florida and won 89-56 in the semifinals, earning the right to host the title game. Had North Florida won that game, it would have hosted Stetson in what would have been a meaningless title tilt, since the Ospreys would have been NCAA-bound regardless of the outcome.

''We can't control anybody but us now,'' Dooley said. ''We'll line up Sunday and do the best we can to win a championship.''

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