|A-Sun Player of the Year Sherwood Brown has the Eagles playing for a championship.|
By DANIEL SHIRLEY
The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles got a taste of the General Shale A-Sun Basketball Championship game last year, but it wasn’t one they enjoyed.
They will get a chance to wash that taste out of their mouths at noon on Saturday in this year’s championship game at Mercer’s Hawkins Arena. The Eagles (23-10) will play top seed and host Mercer for the right to go the NCAA tournament.
They earned that chance with a 72-58 win over Stetson late on Friday night.
“It’s the two teams with the best record in conference play, and we’re both 23-10 (overall) now,” FGCU Head Coach Andy Enfield said. “They beat us by one game during the regular season. We split during the year. We beat them in the semifinals last year, so we’ve won two of the last three, and those games all came down to the last 10 seconds. I expect another close game tomorrow.”
In the regular-season meetings the home team won each time, and both games were close. Mercer won in overtime at home in January, and FGCU won by three at the end of February.
Mercer, however, is undefeated at home this season and has won 17 straight games overall at Hawkins Arena. Still, the last A-Sun team to win the tournament on its home court was Georgia State in 2001.
“Mercer has great players, and this is a great atmosphere to play in, and we’re looking forward to it,” Enfield said after his team’s game finished after 10 p.m. “Even though it’s on short rest, we’re excited to be in the championship game, and we’re going to do our best.
“We feed off this environment, and we enjoy playing here.”
The turnaround is quick for the Eagles, but they did benefit from an off day on Thursday. In last year’s championship game, they were playing their third game in three days.
“I think yesterday’s off day really helped us out a lot,” said Sherwood Brown, who led the Eagles with 18 points. “It’s always tough to play a late game and then turn around and play a game early the next day. But we’re just going to go to the hotel and get some rest and come out and be ready to play.”
The Eagles know they have a tough game ahead of them with one of the best defensive teams in the conference taking the court Saturday.
“It’s going to be a good game,” said Chase Fieler, who scored 11 points. “We have to play good defense and get all the 50-50 balls. They’re really big inside, but our guards always rebound well. Just rebounding and playing good defense, that will be the key.”
Focus could be another factor. Knowing the winning team will be headed to the NCAA tournament will be added motivation for the Eagles and the Bears.
“It’s hard to not think about it, but we have to win first to do that,” Brown said. “We have to try to keep our focus on winning this game. That’s the most important thing.”