Top seeds rule day in opening day’s action

March 1, 2012 

Suspense was minimal, and that can be a bummer.

But there was some quality basketball, as expected, on the first day of the A-Sun tournament as the top seeds took care of business, and in different ways.

For Florida Gulf Coast’s top-seeded women, it was a matter of time.

The Eagles trailed ETSU often in the first half and finally crept ahead late and had a four-point halftime lead. The nation’s most proficient 3-point shooting team was anything but.

“We were taking a little bit deeper 3 than what we traditionally take,” head coach Karl Smesko said. “We didn’t make shots that I thought we would normally make.”

Still, there was no panic, no frantic scribbling of new plays, no vein-popping speeches.

Head coach Karl Smesko told his team what it already knew.

“It was just a matter of, ‘Hey, we gotta make more plays,’ ” Smesko said. “In fact, what we did was we went over the points we that we (had) at the beginning of the game, so see how we were doing so far.”

They weren’t doing so good, but that changed right away as they bolted out of the locker room and gained immediate second-half control en route to a 79-63 win.

“The longer it would have been a close game, the more the pressure would have been on us,” Smesko said. “Fortunately, we came out with a good spurt right away.

Smesko is fairly unique.

He looks like a linebacker or power forward and looks as though he could still bang pretty hard inside.

Yet he might be the quietest coach on the sidelines this week, male or female.

“He’s extremely quiet,” senior guard Kelsey Jacobson said. “He doesn’t yell unless we’ve pushed him to a point of yelling.”

It must be nice for coaches when a team can self-adjust and shoot 56.5 percent in the second half. They don’t need to say much.

And that’s why Florida Gulf Coast is such a joy to watch. The work is done in practice with players who listen and understand and then go out and do it.

Speaking of that, there’s Belmont’s men, another team that know what the head coach is going to say.

The Ohio Valley Conference will find out soon enough as Belmont joins that group and raises the conference’s RPI and respectability.

And the Bruins will take a Hoosiers-like game and impressive program with them.

Take Drew Hanlen, one of the top 3-point shooters in the nation. He stands -- well, is listed at -- all of 5-foot-11.

He is one of those players who had a huge high school résumé -- All-St. Louis, all-state, leader of a Class 5 state-contending program and didn’t get much of a peek from the big boys.

Hanlen considered Arkansas-Little Rock, Yale, East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro before picking Belmont, where he has been a perfect fit as a floor leader.

The Missouri all-stater from metro St. Louis is unique off the court.

He’s already a businessman, owning Pure Sweat, which involves training basketball players and getting them ready for the pros.

So to say he’s a coach on the floor is an understatement, what with consulting and organizing and writing. Not that many know, since his name and likeness can’t appear on anything, courtesy of NCAA rules.

To watch Hanlen is to see all of that in action. Like all gym rats, he sort of sneaks around the court, looking for a play to make before there’s a play to make. Considering he can dribble six balls at once, it’s not surprising Hanlen is so proficient when he can use only one.

Belmont wasn’t up to its normal level of sharpness, as evidenced by the color of head coach Rick Byrd’s face several times throughout the game. Jacksonville was a hungry eighth seed, and Belmont was without A-Sun defensive player of the year Ian Clark.

It was the second straight game that Belmont played without a starter, but the Bruins still do so many great basketball things inherently well that that doesn’t always matter.

Stetson’s women didn’t need any heroics to get past USC Upstate, a team that pulled off the upset of the Hatters less than a week ago.

Stetson’s first half was about as off-kilter as everybody else’s was, but the Hatters took control, even if they didn’t necessarily pull away.

Life is a little less stressful when a team has the player of the year get 15 points and nine rebounds. Victoria McGowan, who heaved a semifinal buzzer-beater a year ago against Belmont, does have fun on the this floor.

Speaking of fun on this floor, that’s the whole reason Mercer had worked its way the past few years to host this event.

The Bears reached the title game two years ago as underdogs and the semifinal a year ago as underdogs.

Now, on the home floor, they began the tournament as one of the hunted trying to avoid the upset and were able to do so, moving into Friday’s semifinals.

Contact Michael A. Lough at 744-4626 or mlough@macon.com

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