By Daniel Shirley
Mel Thomas was a member of one of women’s college basketball powerhouse programs as a player.
Now, she’s getting a different experience with another powerhouse team.
Thomas, who played for Connecticut, is in her second season as the director of operations for the Florida Gulf Coast women’s basketball team. The Eagles, who made their Atlantic Sun Conference Championship debut after completing the transition process to full Division I status, earned their first trip to the NCAA tournament Saturday with their first A-Sun tournament title.
Florida Gulf Coast cruised through the tournament, beating East Tennessee State, Kennesaw State and Stetson. The Eagles topped second-seeded Stetson 67-39 on Saturday in the championship game.
Karl Smesko’s Florida Gulf Coast team improved its record to 29-2 overall, which ties the Eagles with the 1997-98 Florida International Golden Panthers for top mark in total wins. The Eagles have also won all 21 of their games against A-Sun competition.
That’s the kind of dominance Thomas was used to as a player at UConn.
“I think both teams just strive for excellence to just be the best and don’t accept anything less than that,” Thomas said. “It’s on a slightly smaller scale here because at UConn we were always under a microscope, but we’re just focused on being the best and doing the best that we can do.
“It is awesome to be part of a winning team again, and Coach Smesko has done a great job with these girls. It’s just like a family, just like it was at UConn, because everyone’s really close.”
The Eagles’ games this week weren’t close. They won their three tournament contests by a combined 67 points. Still, there was plenty of pressure on Florida Gulf Coast, which Thomas said made this tournament much more intense than anything UConn faced on the conference level.
“It’s almost even bigger stakes here because at UConn it didn’t really matter if we won the Big East tournament or not; we’d be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament,” Thomas said. “Here, we almost have to win because everyone here is playing for the one spot, and it’s more intense. This conference tournament had a different feeling for us because it was our first time here.”
Now the Eagles will make their first trip to the NCAA tournament, something that Thomas experienced as a player with UConn.
Thomas was a co-captain for her UConn team in both her junior and senior seasons. As a senior, she played on a team that won the Big East regular-season and tournament championships and went to the Final Four. Thomas finished her career with 1,098 points and ranked fourth in UConn history with 224 3-pointers.
Now, she will try to share her NCAA experiences with the Eagles players.
“Definitely, I’ll be there for them as much as I can, and I think they’re ready,” Thomas said. “I really think we’re capable of winning a couple of games in the tournament. It’s going to be really, really exciting because it’s our first time being eligible for the conference tournament and now the NCAA tournament.”
“It’s just an awesome experience, and I feel really honored to be a part of it.”
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon. Follow complete coverage of the Atlantic Sun tournament at www.macon.com/mercer and follow Daniel at @DM_Shirley for live updates throughout the tournament.