Florida Gulf Coast’s basketball party runs aground at ‘Dunk City Beach’

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — Other than Cowboys Stadium where the game itself was played, the best place to watch Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16, obviously, was at the beach. Or right next to it, at a place called Times Square, a part of town that gives off a port city vibe. The resulting event might not have been an outing worthy of those classic Jackie Treehorn beach parties, but the setting was close enough.

The nearby town of Cape Coral donated a big-screen projection TV and local businesses — which included a pizzeria, a Greek restaurant and a Dairy Queen — were good neighbors and let the party spill from the square into their respective spaces. That's what this run for FGCU's men's basketball team was all about, anyway — bringing the community together like it rarely has been before.

If only FGCU had won. Darn those Florida Gators.

There were cops on foot hanging around and cops on Segways rolling around just in case the party got out of hand, with officers protecting those who draw water in town from those who don't. It was funny to see, considering the crowd wasn't only comprised of young people, but also seniors who were there to root on their local team. Thankfully, nothing transpired that required a harsh reaction from law enforcement. The crowd did erput with joy when the underdog Eagles opened the game with a lead that included a patented high-flying slam — a donation from "Dunk City."

Certainly there would be more. And, for about half of a half, the Eagles looked like they were going to soar into the Elite Eight.

"F-G-C-U! F-G-C-U!" went the chant, led by a group of young men dressed in blue and green, the school's colors. The crowd at the square was a few hundred large, and full of students, but these guys were the de facto student section. Yet, there were signs of cracks not long after the strong start by the Eagles. A couple of the cheering fans could be overheard saying they needed to sit down, or at least stand elsewhere. Bricks aren't as easy on the legs, even young ones, and they're not as pliable as the wooden, metal and plastic bleachers at Alico Arena on campus. Sigh. These guys really were new at this.

They stuck it out on foot, though — at least for the first half — choosing not to join others sitting with their legs crossed around the TV like it was telling campfire stories. It was like the FGCU team had brought everyone into its living room.

But the cramping legs of fans were an omen that the Gators were about to assert themselves. Once the defense of Florida went to work on FGCU's players, the high-flying dunks we all witnessed during the opening games against Georgetown and San Diego State became nearly impossible to execute. The Eagles finished with three jams overall and the crowd watching remotely was appropriately quieted as a result. A couple of roars came when an FGCU run appeared imminent in the second half, but it never developed. The Gators had strangled the Eagles.

It would have been something to see FGCU extend the party at least one more game, so the donated TV would have been flipped on again in Times Square on Easter Sunday. But you can't lay an egg in the tournament and get a second chance. That's how the dream ends, and it has ended for Florida Gulf Coast. But what a party it was, while it lasted.

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