A-Sun tournament wasn’t a roller coaster, but still a fun ride

mlough@macon.comMarch 10, 2013 

The seats were empty, and assorted banners and signs were being collected.

A half-dozen or so computer keyboards were still busy, and a few arena workers did some preliminary cleaning, because after four days of basketball and a day of hoops that began almost 10 hours earlier, some stuff could wait.

Across the Hawkins Arena floor walked the final participant in the week’s events, Stetson women’s head coach Lynn Bria, with hardware and a smile.

The A-Sun tournament format is in limbo for a while, but having made that same trek two of the past three years with that hardware and that smile, Bria can’t help but think about happiness in Hawkins.

Of course, anywhere Stetson beats Florida Gulf Coast is a place that’ll remain close to her heart.

The A-Sun tournament couldn’t have been capped by a much better performance and show.

Yes, Stetson was written off by pretty much everybody -- my hand’s certainly raised -- going into the women’s final. This time, the “nobody believed” mantra wasn’t just false motivation or team-inspired paranoia; it was the truth.

The postgame reaction of Stetson’s players was more from the gut, almost physical and more a combination of emotions than when Florida Gulf Coast’s men knocked off Mercer.

Florida Gulf Coast’s women had won 41 straight games against conference opponents, were 5-0 in the tournament, had won six straight over Stetson -- the past four by an average of 22 points -- and were 11-2 against the Hatters.

Beating Florida Gulf Coast, especially when you’re the closest conference opponent geographically -- and lately, the main challenger -- is a wee bit more gratifying than edging USC Upstate or Mercer.

“No,” Bria said. “It’s extra special because it’s special we’re going to the NCAA tournament. I wouldn’t care who it would be against. They’re just another team in our conference. They were just in our way to get where we wanted to go.”

Belmont was the conference’s standard bearer on the men’s side, and Florida Gulf Coast holds that title on the women’s side. To say beating either is no big deal is playing verbal games. Make no mistake, Bria was substantially more amped than she let on.

The Hatters undoubtedly went through a circle of emotions on the ride back to DeLand, Fla., and they probably stayed up all night: “We beat Florida Gulf Coast! We’re going to the tournament! We beat Florida Gulf Coast! A-Sun champs! We beat Florida Gulf Coast! We’re going to the tournament!”

Florida Gulf Coast is to the point where beating the Eagles is not too far short of an NCAA win for the rest of the A-Sun.

Consecutive perfect seasons in conference play for the first time in A-Sun history? Minimal single-digit margins for so long? Wins the past three seasons over LSU, Virginia Tech (three straight), Michigan State, Indiana and Seton Hall? Winnable losses in that span to Florida, DePaul, Seton Hall, N.C. State, and St. Bonaventure in the NCAA debut?

Yeah, that’s Tennessee-ish on this level. And when Mercer finally breaks its Florida Gulf Coast streak, head coach Susie Gardner might need her smile surgically removed.

The men’s final was a surprise only in the margin during the game and in the final score, but it was certainly no upset. The Eagles had the marquee win (Miami) and had matched Mercer win for win and surprising loss for surprising loss.

OK, it was a surprise that Florida Gulf Coast guard Brett Comer went off for 21 points in mostly the same fashion each time he scored. Thus, from Florida Gulf Coast head coach Andy Enfield: “To score 88 points against a team like Mercer that’s as good defensively, the No. 1 defensive team in our league, is impressive.”

And it was.

The bottom line was Mercer missed too many good looks and open shots and had its hands on the hole-digging shovel as much as Florida Gulf Coast, which will frustrate the Bears for a while.

We saw the top two seeds on both sides reach the final, both second seeds win, one in an upset and one with an impressive effort in a road game before a near-capacity crowd that was hungry and loud.

The only real upset of the week was in the women’s final, and it was a doozy. So the tournament wasn’t really a roller-coaster ride, but that’s OK.

It’s March and it’s madness, and that’s always good.

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

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