March 15, 2015

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) Moments before he emptied his bench for the final moments, Florida Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko was pleading with his team to play better defense.

His team was up by 20, with time running out.

They rarely relax at Florida Gulf Coast, and that's why the Eagles look poised to make noise in the NCAA Tournament. Whitney Knight scored 17 of her 21 points after halftime, Kaneisha Atwater finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds and the 20th-ranked Eagles beat Northern Kentucky 60-43 on Sunday in the Atlantic Sun championship game.

''The most exciting part of coaching, for a coach, is to see their team celebrate,'' Smesko said, after his Eagles (30-2) won their 25th consecutive game. ''So when the buzzer sounds, and to see them all go to midcourt and have the type of enthusiasm for their accomplishment, that's definitely the highlight of coaching.''

That's why every tape session at FGCU for the past several weeks has started with images of last season's net-cutting celebration.

''Remind them what they're playing for,'' Smesko said.

DyTiesha Dunson and Taylor Gradinjan - a third-year freshman who missed the last two seasons with knee ligament tears and couldn't play in the 2013 and 2014 conference title games - each scored 10 for the Eagles, who were already assured of the league's automatic NCAA berth because Northern Kentucky is transitioning from Division II to Division I.

''Every game means a lot to us,'' said Atwater, who has two career double-doubles, both in A-Sun title games.

Shar-Rae Davis scored 18 points - all on 6 for 7 shooting from 3-point range for the Norse (19-13).

''I made the first two,'' Davis said, ''so I just kept shooting.''

Even she couldn't stop the Eagles, who will be among nine 30-win teams on the bracket when the NCAA Tournament field is announced on Monday night.

''The reason why they're really, really good right now is first of all because they're tough to guard,'' Northern Kentucky coach Dawn Plitzuweit said. ''But most importantly, I think, they really lock you down and they really defend and they make it tough to get in the paint. ... I don't know if they get enough credit for that.''

Down by 15 at the half, the Norse got within 10 shortly after intermission before Knight and Atwater combined for an 8-0 run that pushed FGCU's lead to 40-22 with 14:33 remaining.

And when Northern Kentucky made one more push to cut what was a 22-point deficit down to a slightly more manageable 14, Knight delivered again - a four-point play with 3:44 left.

''Probably what sealed the game,'' Smesko said. ''Conference player of the year came up huge in the second half of the conference championship game, just like you'd expect and hope.''

TIP-INS

Northern Kentucky: The Norse's season-high five-game winning streak was snapped. ... The Norse made six field goals in the first half, only one of them a 2-pointer. They were 1 for 9 from inside the arc in the first 20 minutes. ... Plitzuweit, on how Sunday is a building block for her program: ''To be able to get to this level, experience a championship game, see what it's all about, it's really important for us.''

Florida Gulf Coast: FGCU became the first Atlantic Sun member to win 30 games in a season. ... The Eagles have won 68 straight home games (including postseason) against A-Sun opponents. ... The Eagles outscored the Norse 34-2 in the paint. ... FGCU went 16-0 at home this season, winning by an average of 23.5 points. ... Gradinjan, on how emotional the chance to play Sunday was for her: ''It was all I've ever wanted, to celebrate with them at the end.''

MEADOR OUT

FGCU was without F Katie Meador, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during Wednesday's win over Jacksonville. Meador met with doctors on Sunday, who confirmed that it is a season-ending situation.

FAST START

Northern Kentucky gave up the game's first 13 points and never led. During their five-game winning streak, the Norse never faced any more than a four-point deficit.

UP NEXT

Northern Kentucky: Awaiting possible WNIT or WBI berth.

FGCU: NCAA Tournament.

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