It took an assist from the fans, well, one fan, but a technical foul was the wake-up call the FGCU men’s basketball team needed.
After struggling for much of the game to put away bottom-seed USC-Upstate for much of the game, a wild sequence that included a pair of techs woke the No. 1-seed Eagles up, as they pulled away to win 96-76 on Monday in the Atlantic Sun quarterfinal.
Mike Cunningham hit a three with 13:19 left to cut the gap to 58-54, on the way back down the floor, held up three fingers in the air. On the last trip down the floor, Cunningham appeared to react to a heckling FGCU fan, and started talking back to him. After the three, Cunningham pointed his three fingers toward the fan, and officials quickly whistled him for a technical.
In the ensuing chaos, Upstate coach Kyle Perry got whistled for a technical foul of his own.
“I probably made a mistake by getting a technical, I just didn’t like what the [official] said to me. He said he saw [Cunningham] say something and I couldn’t figure out how he saw that because he was behind him, that was my issue,” Perry said. “We didn’t hold our composure, myself or Mike. That’s something we should’ve been a little better about.”
FGCU’s Dinero Mercurius hit all four technical free throws, and after the Eagles got a bucket from Antravious Simmons after the freebies, a six-point possession put FGCU ahead by 10.
And they never really looked back.
“Our fans get an assist on that one,” Eagles coach Joe Dooley said. “We start shooting some free throws the that the intensity and the atmosphere, especially after we got a couple stops and every time we were on defense, it was big time.”
Zach Johnson led the Eagles(22-10) with 26 points, one off a career high. Johnson hit back to back threes early in the second half to give the Eagles the lead for good and had 17 of hit points in the second half.
“There’s always a sense of urgency in games like this, but you always want to make sure you’re making the right decisions and the right plays,” Johnson said. “Luckily for me I was able to hit a couple open shots and just make the right basketball plays and it worked in our favor.”
The Eagles hit 21 of their 31 shots in the second half, good for 67.7 percent shooting. Johnson hit 7 of his 8 second half shots, including all three three-pointers, while Simmons had 14 of his 18 points in the second half.
“He has been an underappreciated member of our team by a lot,” Dooley said of Simmons. “He never has a bad day, he’s got a smile on his face every day. Anything goes wrong he’s always trying to pick people up. He deserves this and hopefully he’ll continue to play well.”
In the first half it looked like the Spartans(7-25) were exactly the nightmare scenario the Eagles didn’t want to see in a winner-take-all single-elimination tournament. Upstate, a team which had attempted the fourth most threes in the nation on the year, hit six of them in the first half, as they played to within one possession of FGCU at the half, 39-36. Then a three from Ramel Thompkins early in the second half put them ahead briefly, 42-41.
Cunningham led the Spartans, who will be leaving the ASUN after this season for the Big South, with 28 points.
Now the Eagles have to take on another dangerous three-point shooting team in the semifinal, as No. 5 North Florida traveled to Newark to knock off No. 4 NJIT, 80-76. The Ospreys sit seventh in the nation in three-point attempts, but are more efficient than Upstate, hitting just shy of 11 per game, good for eighth best in the nation.
OTHER ASUN QUARTERFINALS
No. 2 Lipscomb 89, No. 7 Stetson 73
No. 3 Jacksonville 87, No. 6 Kennesaw State 68
No. 5 North Florida 80, No. 4 NJIT 76
(All games Thursday, higher seed hosts)
No. 1 FGCU vs. No. 5 North Florida
No. 2 Lipscomb vs. No. 3 Jacksonville
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