PHILADELPHIA – Eleven years ago, the Florida Gulf Coast University athletic department consisted of trailers in a swamp.
The school hired a basketball coach, but there was no arena. There was campus life, but a lot of it was wildlife: bears, panthers, alligators, and snakes. Poisonous snakes.
At that point, in 2001, it had been less than a decade since the Florida Board of Regents selected the plot for the school: "760 acres of land," the school website reads, "located just east of Interstate 75 between Alico and Corkscrew Roads."
"We had golf and tennis," says associate athletic director Michael Estes, who remembers having a trailer for an office. "And a dream."
Friday night, with less than two minutes left in one of the most shocking upsets in NCAA tournament history, that dream rested in the hands of a point guard from Orlando named Brett Comer.
And he chucked it high into the air.
A nation of fans gasped. FGCU's 17-point lead over heavy favorite Georgetown had dwindled down to seven, and any basketball expert with any common sense knew the upstart team should protect the damn ball. Dribble some. Kick it out. Reset. Drain the last two minutes off the freaking clock. Just don't do that.
But that's the essence of Florida Gulf Coast University, the school built on a swamp on the edge of the Everglades. The whole idea of building a competitive athletic program in Ft. Myers was a complete toss-up. So that's what Comer did: he tossed it up. And out of nowhere, a lanky West Virginia swingman with a sick dorm room view of a campus beach leaped "12 feet in the air" and threw down an alley-oop slam that will likely go down as one of the best highlights of the year.
The guttural roar from the FGCU cheering section was unforgettable: "OOOHHHHHHHHHH!!!"
And just a few minutes later, the Eagles swarmed the court, celebrating a 78-68 win that is the seventh 15-over-2 upset in NCAA tournament history, but certainly the first tournament win by a school that came into this century without a basketball arena. FGCU is now undefeated in NCAA tournament play at 1-0.
"When you're 16 years old, you don't have a lot of history," said school president Wilson Bradshaw. "This will go down as one of the greatest days in school history."
During the conference tournament, which should have been a tense time for any team in only its second year of eligibility for the Big Dance, the Eagles decided not to do their usual pregame stretches. Instead, they played tag. Freeze tag. The same guys who won the hearts of a basketball-loving country on Friday night were chasing each other around an Atlantic Sun court only days ago, giggling like schoolchildren and yelling, "You're it!" Tourney officials stared in shock at the scene; the Eagles just laughed.
Think maybe FGCU had some nerves this week, flying to Philadelphia to play in a building five times the size of their home arena? Nah. It closed practice Thursday with a half-court shooting contest.
Think head coach Andy Enfield sweated a little when the school's sports information director, Pat Pierson, told him Friday morning that his team would have the entire national viewing audience to himself for the first half-hour of FGCU's NCAA tournament history that night? Nah. He smiled his gap-toothed smile and said, "Then let's make some shots!"
Think maybe FGCU had a little bit of intimidation when it saw its draw and a date with historically potent Georgetown and John Thompson III? Nah. Here's what Fieler said on Selection Sunday: "Sweet 16, Elite 8 … we expect to make a run."
So the Eagles ran. They ran and ran and ran. The Eagles ran from the beginning of the game, attacking the rim with blinding speed and jarring leaping ability. Comer, who played in the same backcourt with Austin Rivers at Winter Park High, pressed the ball as if the team was down 20. He busted into the paint, laying it up or kicking it out. Even when he peeled back, he dropped a backdoor dime to one of his slashing bigs – Fieler or Eddie Murray, who won a dunk contest in high school yet somehow found his post game amid the muck and the mire of Ft. Myers.
The Eagles didn't just flood the Hoyas like favorites, they preened like favorites, too. Sherwood Brown flexed his muscles after made shots, Bernard Thompson looked knowingly over at commentator Reggie Miller. And Comer kept chucking up prayers that got answered by Dunkensteins that Enfield must have created in a campus lab.
At halftime, with a precarious two-point lead hardly anyone expected, Enfield actually told his team to speed it up. He told his players to perform FGCU basketball. He told them to throw more alley-oops. He wanted the gas pedal all the way down, like it was after midnight on Alligator Alley.
"I got some crazy dudes on my team," he joked after the game, yet it's Enfield who is the ultimate crazy dude. It's the former NBA shooting coach and Rick Pitino protégé who seeks out risk like the rest of us seek out comfort.
"All Andy's done his whole life," said athletic director Ken Kavanagh, "is achieve."
Asked if there was a moment in the job interview that convinced Kavanagh to make the hire, the A.D. said, "When he said he was going to make us a winner."
That was only two years ago, before FGCU was even eligible to make the NCAA tournament. Enfield got on the phone right away, recruiting from the hospital room where Amanda was delivering the couple's third child, Marcum. She was not pleased.
"It got pretty heated," Amanda said Friday at halftime, holding Marcum on her lap.
But hell hath no fury like Andy Enfield on the recruiting path, and the coach found guys who were long and could leap. Those who couldn't shoot were taught. Players who were on the fringe of oblivion started developing their touch, almost overnight. Enfield's borderline arrogance – how many men would make work calls during their wife's delivery? – fed through the whole campus.
The shots started to fill up the hoop, and the arena started to fill up with fans. Last offseason, Enfield asked if the team wanted to play against Duke and VCU. Everyone said yes. In November, Miami came to Ft. Myers and the Eagles beat the Hurricanes.
"After that game," Comer said, "we felt we could play with anybody." And Friday, in the moments before the most pressure-packed game in the short history of a university with no football team, Enfield told his players that they were about to realize they were just as good as the Hoyas. In fact, they were better.
"Andy handles stress and tension pretty well," Amanda said at halftime. "I don't handle it quite as well as him."
The cameras found her and Marcum throughout the second half, and she looked just as nervous as the team looked at ease. The rest of the world wondered how FGCU could possibly do this, yet everyone on the court knew the impossible work had already been done. This was just the fun part.
"The whole game," Bernard Thompson said, "I didn't think they'd come back."
"When the arena was first built," Murray said, "there was nothing else around it. Just empty fields."
Fields and dreams.
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