Magical March Madness runs for Florida Gulf Coast and La Salle continue with Sunday night wins

March Madness returns to South Philly with two Sunday night games to decide who advances to next week’s Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

11:55 p.m.

Duke wins 66-50. The crowd had, for the most part, already left the building. (Though those remaining send up a big cheer for the victorious Blue Devils). Which means it’s time for us to wrap up a weekend of March Madness coverage.

Congrats go out to the La Salle Explorers and Florida Gulf Coast Eagles for advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.

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11:30 p.m.

The La Salle Explorers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen with a thrilling win over Mississippi State in Kansas City, Mo. Content partner NBC10 has a full report. NewsWorks will have a story from a campus viewing party on Monday.

At Wells Fargo Center, Duke leads Creighton 45-34 with 7:31 remaining.

11 p.m.

Back at the seats after the Florida Gulf Coast press conference and locker-room interviews. Duke/Creighton is in the second half. With 16:25 remaining, Duke leads 32-27.

10:45 p.m.

Bernard Thompson, a guard on the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles basketball team, had one last thing to say before leaving the press conference after he and his teammates became the first-ever No. 15 seed to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen round.

“Dunk City is coming to Arlington,” he said, “so everybody be ready.”

After the Eagles’ high-flying, crowd-engaging 81-71 win over the San Diego State Aztecs, it’s hard to imagine anyone won’t be.

There, the underdogs who could will face the University of Florida Gators, who will also be heavily favored over the Eagles in Arlington, Texas.

That seemed to matter very little to the FGCU players and coach, a team loaded with characters and confidence.

“We’re all about having fun and playing really hard. Like to get the crowd involved,” explained Sherwood Brown, the guard who beamed while rallying the team’s supporters who traveled north to bear witness to an unexpected two-game triumph. “We’re doing something special here [but have to remain focused because we] still have a lot of games to play hopefully.”

Later in the evening, Brown would hold court near the concession stands, signing autographs and meeting fans during the Duke/Creighton game.

Guard Brett Comer likened their style of play to “full-attack mode,” an approach that saw them pull away from the Aztecs much like they did to the Georgetown Hoyas two nights earlier. Defensive stops, he said, were key to making their foes second guess themselves.

On the stage before a media pack that will only expand in the days leading up to the Sweet Sixteen, Comer tried to put it into the proper context.

“I think I can speak for everyone up here: This is the biggest game of our careers,” he said.

Some numbers to back that up:

– FGCU is currently the only undefeated team in tournament history (with the two wins in Philadelphia).

– After being down two points with 15:07 left in the game, they outscored San Diego State 27-6 in the next 11 minutes.

– The team has 145 dunks on the season (which helps explain Brown’s “Dunk City” assertion).

As Coach Andy Enfield and three players were in the press-briefing room, an air of pizza filled the locker room. There, Chase Fieler lauded his roommate Comer’s penchant for passing the ball with inexplicable accuracy and timing.

He conceded that the Eagles were stoked after defeating Georgetown, “but that went away the minute we woke up” on Saturday to prepare for San Diego State. He also noted how the dunk-city air gets the crowd behind them, which is what happened on Friday and Sunday.

As for the upcoming opponent, Fieler noted that they only lost one game to in-state competition all season “and we’re going to try to continue that.”

For his part, Enfield said he was concerned about the first half his team played. Though they trailed by one, they could have been down seven or eight, he said.

“I’m so proud of these players,” he said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously [but] when we step on the court for practice, we’ll be focused.”

A former assistant coach at Florida State, he said he had a 3-2 record versus next week’s opponent.

“We know they can be beat,” he said, “but we have an unbelieveable amount of respect for them.”

9:15 p.m.

For a team that most people in Philly had never heard of before Friday, from a school that’s just 16 years old, the Florida Gulf Coast U Eagles have won this crowd over.

They’re not playing like a 15 seed, unless 15 seeds play with an air of confidence and risk-taking abandon successfully. And now, with a 77-62 lead with 1:27 left, they may soon become the first 15 seed to ever last through the first weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

FINAL: FGCU 81, SDSU 71. Heading down to the locker room before the Duke/Creighton game starts.

9 p.m.

Over the past two or three minutes, Gulf Coast has done what they did to Georgetown in the second half on Friday. Making plays. Stopping the other side from doing so. Their lead is now 10, with 7:17 to play.

After making the next basket, Eagles’ Sherwood Brown ran down the court sticking his tongue out. Then, he got a rebound on a missed three-point attempt. They’re starting to slow it dow to drain time off the clock.

With 5:37 remaining, it’s Gulf Coast 66, Aztecs 52. Now it’s Chase Fieler waving his arms for some noise from the Wells Fargo fans as SDSC calls a timeout.

8:30 p.m.

Second half is underway. Gulf Coast made their halftime deficit disappeared quickly. We’re tied at 41 with 15:56 to go. FGCU is still lobbing the ball up for dunks with regularity. They’re just a lot of fun to watch. SDSU isn’t backing down or ceding ground of defense like Georgetown did Friday night.

You’d think Gulf Coast was playing a home game the way fans at the Wells Fargo Center jumped up cheering when a Chase Fieler layup extended their lead to 52-46 with 12:56 remaining in the second half.

Gulf Coast guard Brett Comer has been urging the fans on after timeout breaks. The Aztecs, however, are not going away. Get the sense that this may well come down to the game’s last shot.

8 p.m.

Gulf Coast forward Chase Fieler (see bottom of this post for his Friday night game impact) got a pass at the three-point line. Drove the lane. Fouled while going up. Throws down a big slam to cut San Diego State’s lead to four. Timeout with 1:54 remaining in the half. Fouled, he hit the free throw.

At halftime, San Diego leads Gulf Coast 35, Gulf Coast 34.

Leading scorers: Jamaal Franklin with 9 for SDSU; Bernard Thompson with 10 for FGCU.

Gulf Coast is shooting 12-of-23 from the field; SDSU, 13-of-26. Each team has attempted nine three pointers; Gulf Coast has made 5, SDSU has made 3.

Sure many local folks will soon be switching over to the La Salle game, which is slated to start in a few minutes. Good luck to the Explorers.

7:30 p.m. update

Game’s on. With 10:42 remaining in the first half, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles lead the San Diego State Aztecs 15-14.

The gallery is already up and running, and now that I’m here, look for regular updates from the game itself. (Sorry for the delay.)

Should the Eagles, who are the fan favorite in South Philly for reasons related and unrelated to their mascot’s name, go 2-for-Philly, they will be the first 15-seed to ever advance to the second weekend of NCAA men’s basketball tournament play.

It’s been a back-and-forth game so far. SDSU getting a lead; Gulf Coast hitting a shot to cut that lead. Repeat.

As it stands right now, with 2:33 remaining in the half, Aztecs lead by four.

11 a.m. update

Two minutes and 17 seconds remained in the game on Friday night.

DaJuan Graf, a guard for the unheralded and — quite frankly — widely unknown Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles was at the free-throw line.

His team, from a 16-year-old school offering beach views from its dorm windows in Ft. Myers, was leading the heralded, widely known Georgetown Hoyas by nine in Friday night’s March Madness showdown at the Wells Fargo Center.

Graf’s miss would leave him with just one point on the game.

It would leave his team, a No. 15 seed facing a No. 2 squad, in a position seen throughout the years of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament:

Plucky underdog fights and fights and fights, but once-rattled favorite settles down and gathers itself just in time to eke out a win and advance.

But this was no normal game.

And this was no normal 15 seed.

When play resumed, Georgetown’s Jabril Trawick missed a three pointer. Otto Porter Jr. missed a put-back off the rebound. But Aaron Bowen tipped that miss back into the basket. The Hoyas were now within seven; 65-58.

Two minutes and two seconds remain

The Wells Fargo Center was electric, just like it had been for about an hour.

A relatively unremarkable 24-22 FGCU halftime lead defied any hoops-analyst script as the Eagles jumped out to a 19-point lead with 12:30 left to play.

They did this by clinically breaking down Georgetown’s defense. And by doing that, they made people start believing. The crowd turned. The Eagles started hearing loud cheers drowning out those urging the Hoyas on.

But Georgetown would drag itself back into the game; a stop here would give them the chance to cut FGCU’s lead to four, even three.

FGCU’s Chase Fieler’s inbound pass went to Bernard Thompson.

Thompson sent the ball in the direction of the team’s leading scorer on the day, Sherwood Brown.

Brown caught the ball. His feet hit the ground. He sprung back up and sent the ball over a defending Hoya to teammate Brett Comer.

Comer caught it less than a step from the three-point line.

One minute and 57 seconds remain

Two Hoyas defenders collapsed on him as he drove toward the basket.

He would not shoot.

He would hold the ball in his right hand and, with a hook-shot motion, loft it above, and a step back from, the hoop.

After his inbound pass, Fieler had run up the opposite sideline uncontested. He was away from the play, a non-factor. But then he swooped in on a diagonal path.

He launched off his left foot.

He fully extended his right arm so that the basket appeared to be level with his elbow.

The ball hit enough of his fingertips for him to gain split-second control.

One minute and 55 seconds remain

Fieler — a junior from West Virginia — slammed the ball downward. The last sound heard before the room erupted in shock and awe was a basketball being thrown through rim and netting. The alley-oop heard ’round the March Madness world.

The Eagles lead was nine.

These 66th and 67th points wouldn’t be the official game-winners – over the next 1:48 Georgetown would reach 68 – but for all intents and purposes, that play sealed the tournament’s biggest upset, which just happened to be the seventh time a No. 15 had won its opening round game.

An appreciative arena rewarded FGCU with “E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES!” chants once reserved for the NFL team which plays across the street.

Eagles advance; Hoyas go home

The Hoyas coach, John Thompson III, and three players would later appear in the post-game press-interview area. They were hollowed out. Gutted. Wanting to be anywhere but there. Wanting to have done anything but lose to a plucky underdog.

“They played well and we didn’t,” is how starting Hoyas forward Nate Lupick explained what everyone had just seen.

“A lot of things that we were good at all year we weren’t good at tonight,” the coach said. “You have to give them all the credit.”

Soon, FGCU coach Andy Enfield and Fieler would be among the Eagles taking a seat before the media.

Their jubilance was tamped down. But they could not contain their joy entirely. Beaming smiles. Behind their eyes, thoughts of ‘we actually did it!” swirled. This was earned.

Breaking down the alley-oop

Fieler was asked whether he had ever jumped as high as he did on that alley-oop. He said he thinks he may have. Maybe. Brown, who passed the ball to Comer, said they knew they had nothing to lose coming into the game, that Georgetown had everything to lose. Which is exactly how it played out.

Fieler appreciated those boisterous cheers were coming from a lot of people who had never before heard of Florida Gulf Coast University.

“We’re just trying to live in the moment,” he said, before acknowledging that they need to move on and focus on Sunday’s game. “This was definitely our coming-out party.”

Back in the locker room a few minutes later, Fieler had a small circle of reporters around him. In the background, Comer was typing into, and reading the messages, on his smartphone. Maybe he was texted about imbounding a ball off an unsuspected Hoya’s back earlier in the game for an easy basket.

Both were asked how that oop came to be. Neither could explain it better than a comfort level of knowing where the other was on the court, a basketball-court equivalent of muscle and mental memory.

“I’m just thinking ‘I hope Otto Porter doesn’t steal the ball.’ I’m just hoping this works,” Comer told NewsWorks of one of those defender honing in on him before he threw the pass. (He also noted that the team had fun with the relative anonymity — like, being called things other than Florida Gulf Coast in the game previews — that has since disappeared.)

Fieler tried to explain the play, too.

“I don’t know if he hears me running, or what it is. I see him with the ball, and I’m going to cut, because most of the time, he finds me,” he said.

Yes, he admitted, two, three seconds on the clock can slow down in the mind.

They’re both thinking they’d better make this highlight-reel play or coach is going to be mad that they went for the alley-oop instead of running some time off the clock.

“I’m thinking, ‘I better make this, or it’s going to be bad,'” said Fieler.

He made it.

And it was anything but bad for the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles, who now have a chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen games in Arlington, Texas.

If the Eagles defeat San Diego State, they will face either Florida or Minnesota next weekend.

None of those teams is ranked as highly as Georgetown was.

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