Since the beginning of the season, the only date that has mattered for all eight teams in the Atlantic Sun has been Sunday.
Sure, other games have importance, but if the goal is to reach the NCAA Tournament, the pathway is through Sunday’s ASUN tournament final.
For the FGCU men’s basketball team, it means an entire season’s worth of expectations, and occasional frustration, comes down to 40 minutes on their home floor on Sunday against Lipscomb.
“The main thing is coming out with a bunch of energy,” senior Brandon Goodwin said. “At this point in the season we understand what the stakes are. Own the moment like coach has been telling us all season.”
In 2012, the Eagles played in their first conference tournament final. It was their first year of eligibility, in a season where they caught fire in the conference tournament and even led at the half before falling to eventual winner Belmont 83-69.
Since then, the only year that the Eagles haven’t been playing on Championship Sunday was in 2015, when a missed free throw in the closing seconds led to an upset semifinal loss to USC-Upstate.
“It’s a program, not a team,” Eagles coach Joe Dooley said. “We’ve talked about building it into something sustainable. We’ve been fortunate to have good players and the best atmosphere in the league. That’s something you strive to do.”
That atmosphere is likely to be electric on Sunday.
According to the FGCU ticket office, there were no tickets available Saturday morning. A few tickets might come up if students don’t claim their full allotment. At last year’s final, an above-capacity record crowd of 4,711 saw the Eagles – along with a national TV audience – wear down North Florida in the second half as part of a 77-61 win.
“I’ve played in two ASUN Championship games now, I expect it’s going to be crazy in there,” junior Zach Johnson said. “We’ve got the best fans in the league. Hopefully we can play our game and reward these fans.”
But they’ve got to take care of the Bisons.
While Goodwin was selected as the ASUN Player of the Year, there was an argument to be made for Lipscomb’s Garrison Mathews. Mathews leads the conference in scoring, at 21.7 per game.
The Bisons split the season series with the Eagles, with each team winning on the other’s home floor. In those two games, Mathews scoring 23 in Lipscomb’s win on Feb. 17, and 15 in the Eagles dramatic come from behind victory in Nashville on Jan. 18.
Like USC-Upstate and North Florida, the two teams the Eagles beat to get here, Lipscomb can shoot. But the emphasis is on can. In conference play, they’ve been the ASUN’s worst three-point shooting team, hitting just 32 percent from long range, but they’ve made up for it by getting more cracks at the basket.
Lipscomb was already the seventh-fastest team in the nation, an average of 75 possessions per game, but since conference play they’ve stepped even harder on the gas, with 76.4 per game.
And with that speed comes breakdowns and fatigue, which allows for guys like Rob Marberry(16.1 ppg) to get going.
“They made 14 threes the other night against Stetson, they can score a variety of different ways,” Dooley said.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Manage Tempo – Lipscomb thrives in fast-paces games. FGCU plays faster than they have in the past, but the Eagles will want to set a speed limit on this one. In games where the Eagles have 80 or more possessions this year, they’re 1-3, including a 90-87 loss to the Bisons.
Protect the Ball – The Eagles have often won games this year in spite of themselves, racking up huge turnover numbers and being able to avoid them through sheer volume of scoring efficiency. In eight of their 10 losses this year, FGCU turned it over 15 or more times.
Mathews and Marberry – Garrison Mathews and Rob Marberry are kind of a pick your poison for their opponents. Typically, one player will have a big night, but that’s survivable. But if both players go off in the same game, it’s bad news for teams playing Lipscomb. But what’s even more important is understanding they will do their damage, but you can’t let the others get going.
No. 1 FGCU vs. No 2 LIPSCOMB
ATLANTIC SUN TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP
Sunday, 3:00 p.m.
Alico Arena, Fort Myers
Tickets: FGCUTickets.com(Sold Out)
Radio: FOX Sports
Live Updates: @ByRJRoan(Twitter)
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