ARLINGTON, Texas -- For nearly 15 minutes, Florida Gulf Coast University was the bell of the Sweet 16 Ball. The 15th-seeded Eagles picked up right where they left off in their historic upsets of Georgetown and San Diego State, dunking and draining three-pointers and roaring out of the gate to an 11-point lead over SEC champion Florida.
The Eagles didn't get all the steps right, turning the ball over repeatedly, but still they held a 10-point lead with 5:23 left in the first half. Then the Gators' defense pinched them and the dream began to evaporate. The carriage turned back into a pumpkin and players who had flown to the basket as if they had wings on their feet came back down for a hard landing.
Florida took control with a 16-0 run before halftime and broke hearts instead of brackets by cruising to a 62-50 victory over FGCU in the semifinals of the South Regional Friday night in front of a Cowboys Stadium crowd of 40,639. Third-seeded Florida (29-7) moved into the Elite Eight for the third straight season and will face fourth-seeded Michigan (29-7) in Sunday's South Regional final.
While the Eagles spent last week reveling in the national spotlight, Gators coach Billy Donovan prepared his defense with devastating effect. FGCU (26-11) committed 20 turnovers, including nine by point guard Brett Comer, the key to the Eagles' high-flying attack. Combine a 10-turnover advantage with a Florida front line that had a 15-6 advantage in offensive rebounds, and FGCU's dream of becoming the first 15th seed to reach the Elite Eight didn't stand a chance when it effectively gave Florida an extra 19 possessions.
"I was shocked at some of the bad turnovers we had in the first half," FGCU coach Andy Enfield said. "It wasn't what Florida was doing. We did it to ourselves. Florida is a great defensive team, but some of the turnovers, you can't even make that up."
The Gators, who shot 38.6 percent from the field, got 15 points from Mike Rosario, 13 from Scottie Wilbekin and 11 from Casey Prather off the bench. But the Gators had 13 more shots than FGCU. Sherwood Brown led the Eagles with 14 points and Chase Fieler had 12.
It all began to come apart when the Gators scored 16 straight points to take a 30-24 lead just before halftime, and the run extended to 23-2 for a 37-26 cushion. The Eagles cut the deficit to seven with 3:14 remaining but could get no closer to nirvana.
Comer said Florida's defense did a great job of preventing him from coming off screens. "I didn't make the right play out of it like I should have, and it affected us," he said.
When the Eagles' early high gave way to the sudden turnaround in the first half, it was impossible to recover. "It was very exciting to get out to that big run in the Sweet 16 against a great team like Florida," Fieler said. "When they started their run, we didn't have the energy we did in the other two games. It got us down. They did a great job . . . making our plays run five feet deeper than we wanted and just really got us out of our game."
Despite the loss, the Eagles enjoyed the ride of a lifetime. "It was great to see the excitement across the country for the underdog," Enfield said. "Our plan wasn't to be some great national story. Our plan was to compete and win games. But it was unbelievable to see the excitement and passion of not only our local community and students but also on a national level. I'm very thankful for that."