|Brett Comer produced an MVP performance for the Eagles against Mercer.|
By DANIEL SHIRLEY
After Friday’s win over Stetson, Florida Gulf Coast head coach Andy Enfield said his team enjoys the atmosphere of a big game, especially at Mercer’s Hawkins Arena.
The Eagles proved him right again Saturday.
Playing in front of a crowd of 3,494 at Hawkins Arena, the Eagles knocked off top seed and tournament host Mercer, 88-75, to win the 2013 General Shale A-Sun Basketball Championship title. With that win, the Eagles (24-10) earn the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
And the Eagles certainly enjoyed themselves playing in front of the big crowd and quieting the Mercer fans for most of the second half.
“It was huge, you know,” tournament MVP Brett Comer said. “It’s something we really thrive on. It’s fun for us; we enjoy that type of situation. It’s a lot of fun for us. It’s really great.”
Comer was dynamic in the title game, scoring 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting as he controlled the action for most of the second half. The Eagles also showed off their depth with four other players in double figures: Sherwood Brown (16), Chase Fieler (15), Christophe Vardiel (12) and Bernard Thompson (11).
Brown and Fieler joined Comer on the all-tournament team.
That group helped the Eagles break open a two-point game at halftime with an 11-2 run and outscore the Bears 50-39 in the second half.
“Before anyone had to say anything, we just all had the same look and knew what we had to do,” Fieler said of the halftime speeches that did come after those looks across the locker room. “We just knew we had to outplay them and come out and work hard and get rebounds, and we just made some shots.”
That kind of internal leadership from the players has been important to the Eagles’ turning around their program so quickly.
This year was just the team’s second year of eligibility for the NCAA tournament – they reached the A-Sun tournament championship game last year – and it is also Enfield’s second season as the team’s head coach.
“The turnaround started with creating a culture of credibility within our program,” Enfield said. “Our coaching staff has done a tremendous job, and our players have followed. It has developed from creating leadership within our team. Last year, we were young and inexperienced and had never been in situations like this before, and we didn’t know how to handle success or failure last year. We were talented. We just didn’t know what we were doing.
“Once that leadership from within came … they were able to create an internal culture, and it had nothing to do with the coaches. Once you get that and you only worry about your teammates and your team, things can happen in a positive way, and something special can happen.”
The special thing coming up for the Eagles will be their first trip to the NCAA tournament, and Florida Gulf Coast was the first team to clinch a spot in this year’s tournament. Enfield said the team’s tough schedule, including games at Duke, VCU, Iowa State and St. John’s, along with a win over Miami, will prepare the Eagles for what is to come.
“Certainly, we beat Miami this year by 12, and we played at Cameron against Duke,” Enfield said. “We played at St. John’s. We played at VCU. We were up at halftime at St. John’s. We were up at Iowa State. We’ve had a tough schedule. If we go to the NCAA tournament, we’re not going to be intimidated. The NCAA tournament is no more intimidating than Cameron Indoor Stadium or opening night at VCU. And Iowa State is one of the toughest places to play, so we’ve seen it all, and we’ve been to two A-Sun championship games.
“So the NCAA tournament, we’re just going to go have fun with it and compete, and whoever we play, we’re going to give it our best shot.”
Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman praised the Eagles and said they deserve anywhere to a No. 12 seed in the tournament. Enfield agreed.
“I think our RPI is excellent. With our RPI and our win over Miami, which is leading the ACC, and our schedule, I would expect it to be anywhere from a 12 to 14,” Enfield said. “I think 14, we probably deserve higher than that. I’m not on the committee, so I don’t know what they judge. I certainly don’t think we deserve a 15 or 16. I think it’s higher than that based on our season.”