PHILADELPHIA – They came from a made-up place called Dunk City, a rollicking, refreshing GIF-machine consisting of nobodies who became somebodies with dunks and oops and just enough sass to raise an eyebrow.
And now the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast University have made history: They are the first 15-seed ever to be one of the top 16 college basketball teams in America.
But it's not just that. No, not at all. It's the way FGCU has leapt and heel-clicked and chicken danced into America's hearts. It's the memories they've made during games with their above-the-rim aerials and their below-the-backboard antics. In a college sporting world of corporate fakery and soiled amateurism, FGCU stands for pure joy.
After coming off the court following their 81-71 victory over San Diego State, the Eagles were greeted by cheers and claps and high-fives from members of the Duke band. Fans who had gathered in the ritzy bar underneath the Wells Fargo Center came flooding out to take pictures, and Brett Comer and Sherwood Brown greeted them with hugs and high-fives. "Philly loves you!" one screamed.
Everyone loves them. Everyone. People have gotten their initials wrong and even their name wrong – everything from "Florida State" (Steve Fisher) to Florida Golf Coast (a South Carolina newspaper) – yet that's part of the fun, too. Fans could make of them however they wanted. Sons of the Beach, White Slamma Jamma, whatever. They were a clean canvas, a brand new university with a history the current students were writing in real-time.
Usually the underdogs win with Xs and Os; the Princeton offense, or the Butler precision. Mind candy. These guys are eye candy, winning with playground hoops and streetball theatrics. They are Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount, Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV, only FGCU didn't exist when Loyola Marymount and UNLV were dazzling the college hoops world. It's Brown grinning and flexing, Chase Fieler going baseline for a dunk and facial, Christophe Varidel nailing a three and then becoming the first Swiss basketball player to do an Irish jig on a court in Pennsylvania.
It's head coach Andy Enfield, so beloved by his team that the first chant the players did after entering the victorious locker room wasn't "Sweet 16!" or "FGCU!" or even "Dunk City!" (that one came second), but "ANDY! ANDY! ANDY!"
It was Enfield who entered that same locker room before opening tipoff and predicted to his team they would be up by six or eight points with a minute left in the game, so please take care of the ball. (They weren't up by six or eight; they were up 13.)
"I have never seen him so calm," associate A.D. Michael Estes said.
It was Enfield who came in at halftime, silently pulled up a folding chair, sat down, stared his players in their eyes and said, "Guys, we played like [expletive], and we're still down one. How do you all want to come back in the locker room after this game?"
The Eagles came out, traded baskets for the first 10 minutes of the second half, then stormed the Aztecs like a tidal wave. They ran the court like fullbacks, passed like Globetrotters and soared like Cirque extras. With just over five minutes to go, they were up 14 after Bernard Thompson jumper. "You could see [SDSU} were a little shaken up by the way we came at them," said Thompson, who scored 23.
The whole building was shaken up. Every steal or rebound started a current of energy, and the murmur grew into a dull roar as Comer or Thompson rushed the ball up court. Then, when the ball was lofted up in the air, waiting for some lanky giant to grab it and slam it, it felt as if the whole arena was frozen in held breath.
They've been saying over and over again that nobody should be surprised; this is what they do. This is how they play. Varidel's heel-click? He does that after almost every three back in Ft. Myers, Fla. Eric McKnight's insane reach-back and tomahawk finish? "I'm used to catching dunks like that all the time," he said. Chase Fieler ("Wood County Slammer") and Eddie Murray ("Great White Hype") jumping out of the gym? They were doing it in warm-ups before Sunday's game as if they were working on their free throws.
It does not stop here. History is not enough for these guys. The next matchup is the ultimate in David v. Goliath deliciousness – Florida Gulf Coast against Florida in Jerryworld (that's Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas) – and the Eagles are licking their chops. "We know they can be beaten," Enfield said, politely but surely.
He announced he recruited a lot of Florida's players when he was at Florida State. He declared he was 3-2 against Billy Donovan's teams as a Seminoles assistant. The former Wall Street tycoon is pushing all of his chips to the middle of the table, and his players are too. The Gators get their pick of the nation's players, and FGCU is all leftovers. But are you really going to bet against them now?
"Dunk City is coming to Arlington," Thompson said Sunday, "so you better be ready."
America's team playing in Cowboys Stadium. Sounds about right.
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