MACON, Ga. – Behind a 24-10 run to open the second half, the sixth-seeded FGCU men’s basketball team erased a seven-point halftime deficit with a strong final 20 minutes to defeat third-seeded USC Upstate, 71-61, on Thursday night in the final Atlantic Sun Tournament quarterfinal contest at the University Center.
Playing its first-ever A-Sun Tournament, FGCU (14-16) advances to Friday’s semifinals to face tournament host and second-seeded Mercer (22-10). Gametime is slated for 8:30 p.m. and will be televised on Comcast Sports South (CSS), channel 70 in Southwest Florida.
“This is a tremendous win for our program and I’m awfully proud of our guys,” said first-year head coach Andy Enfield, who has led FGCU to a program Division I record for wins. “We didn’t convert our opportunities in the first half and I told the guys at halftime to ‘keep playing’ and we’ll be back in it. We gave a full 40-minute effort tonight and that’s what it takes this time of the year and to beat a team of USC Upstate’s caliber.”
As it has been all year, balance was theme for FGCU, as five players reached double figures for the ninth time this season (9-0). Sophomore Christophe Varidel (Versoix, Switzerland/Worcester Academy) led the way with 14 points and six rebounds off the bench, marking the 12th time this season the team’s leading scorer has come off the pine. Freshman Filip Cvjeticanin (Zagreb, Croatia/American School of Madrid) was the other half of the three-point shooting tandem off the bench, producing 11 points. Varidel and Cvjeticanin, who rank third and second in the A-Sun in three-point percentage, respectively, combined to go 6-of-11 from deep.
A-Sun All-Conference second team choice Sherwood Brown (Orlando, Fla./Olympia HS) was a big part of the second half turnaround, scoring all 12 of his points in the final 20 minutes while adding six rebounds. Redshirt junior Eddie Murray (North Fort Myers, Fla./Bishop Verot HS) and freshman Bernard Thompson (Conyers, Ga./Rockdale County HS) each had 10 points and seven rebounds. Six of Murray’s seven boards came on the offensive end, while all seven of Thompson’s came on defense.
Just a week removed from giving up 15 three-pointers to the Spartans in an 87-74 loss on Feb. 23, FGCU held USC Upstate to just 5-of-21 from beyond the arc. Full court pressure and a terrific one-on-one defensive job by Brown on A-Sun Player of the Year Torrey Craig were crucial in the Eagles limiting the Spartans to a 26.8 percent shooting clip (11-41) in the second half. Brown drew the defensive assignment of guarding Craig, who scored a career-high 30 points on the Eagles a week ago, and limited the sophomore to just 3-of-13 from the field for 10 points with four turnovers.
Trailing 27-21 at half, the Eagles opened the second frame by scoring the opening nine points to vault back in the lead, 30-27, less than a minute and a half in. After going 8-of-32 from the field in the first half, FGCU found its rhythm on the offensive end, equaling its first half point total by the 12:31 mark by hitting 7-of-10 to start the frame.
FGCU led by eight, 45-37, following its 24-10 run to open the second half, but took its largest lead of the game (13) with 8:38 remaining thanks to a quick 8-0 run that was capped by a pull-up three-pointer in transition by Varidel that made it 53-40.
The Eagles’ double figure lead stood for the next three minutes until the Spartans began to chip away, getting the deficit down to five on a pair of occasions with less than three minutes to play.
Holding a 62-57 lead and the shot clock winding down, freshman point guard Brett Comer (Winter Park, Fla./Winter Park HS) drilled a three-pointer from the left wing as the buzzer sounded, giving FGCU an eight-point cushion, 65-57, with 1:41 to play.
Despite missing the front end of a one-and-one two times in a row, the Eagles were able to get five straight defensive stops to clinch their first-ever A-Sun Tournament berth after sitting out the last four years due to the Division I transition period.
It was a tale of two halves for the FGCU offense. After shooting 25 percent in the first half, the Green and Blue shot a healthy 53 percent (16-30) in the final stanza that was keyed by a 6-of-9 performance beyond the arc. The Eagles, who were swept by the Spartans in the regular season, out-scored USC Upstate 50-34 in the second half.
Comer’s three-pointer in the final minutes was part of a nine-point second half for the A-Sun All-Freshmen team selection. The A-Sun leader in assists per game, Comer dished out a game-high four helpers, while also grabbing five rebounds and two steals. Sophomore Chase Fieler (Parkersburg, W. Va./Parkersburg South HS) used his long 6-foot-8 frame to block four shots on a night in which FGCU had seven rejections as a team.
USC Upstate (20-12), who was also playing in its first-ever A-Sun Tournament game, was also led off the bench by freshman Adrian Rodgers’ 16 points and six rebounds. A-Sun Freshman of the Year Ty Green scored 10 points on 14 shots, while sophomore Ricardo Glenn had 13 points and eight boards.