In the span of two and a half hours, the FGCU men’s basketball team went from knocking on the door of a three-peat, to humiliation, to hope, to ultimately, defeat.
A school-record tying 37 points from Zach Johnson and a career-high 34 points from Brandon Goodwin helped bring the Eagles back from a 32-point second half deficit, but the comeback effort eventually ran out of steam, as Lipscomb held on to win 108-96 on Sunday.
“There’s no moral victories because we didn’t pull it out,” Goodwin said. “I do appreciate our fans, they stayed with us, we tried to stick together and keep chipping away. But you’ve got to string together two halves.”
FGCU had the veteran players, the tournament experience, and the NCAA pedigree, but it was the Bisons(23-9) who came out looking like the composed team who had been there before.
As the lead grew, the idea that this was just a hot start, or that the Eagles, who had come back from down 18 in the second half to beat Lipscomb in Nashville earlier this season, started to look more and more like fantasies.
Less than halfway into the first half, Garrison Mathews hit his fourth three, pushing the lead to 37-17. George Brammeier scored on a layup two minutes later for a 24-point lead at 45-21. The Bisons hit 17 of their first 21 shots.
“They just played great and fed off each other,” Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander said. “The offense is what everyone is going to look at, but our defense was great too.”
Mathews nearly outscored the Eagles by himself in the first half, with 26 points. And it really seemed like neither he, nor the Bisons, could miss. When Matthews hit a three that rattled around the rim before falling in, it appeared the last frustrated gasps came from a deflated home crowd looked up at the score: Lipscomb 58, FGCU 28.
“They’re good offensively and they got on a roll,” Eagles coach Joe Dooley said. “Mathews was unbelievable in the first half, they got some confidence and it was hard to answer.”
The Eagles(23-11) ended the first half with as many turnovers(12) as made baskets – and even that is only due to a three from Goodwin with 18 seconds left in the half.
Kenny Cooper hit a pair of free throws with 16:33 to go to give the Bisons their largest lead, 69-37, and they led 72-41 with 15:46 to go after yet another Mathews three.
But then something crazy happened: the Eagles started pressing…and it started working.
“I believe in everybody in that locker room,” Johnson said, his voice shaking with emotion. “For anybody to give up in that locker room means they’re giving up on me. There was never any doubt, we believed in each other but we couldn’t pull it out.”
FGCU scored nine points in 42 seconds – assisted by Lipscomb’s Alexander getting called for a technical foul – and sparked an 18-4 run over the next three minutes – the Eagles home crowd getting louder and louder as the gap trimmed closer and closer.
Johnson drilled his seventh three to trim it to 78-65 with 11:52 left. Coming out of the timeout, Dooley shed his jacket, begging the fans to get louder. Johnson’s eighth three cut it to 81-71. The turnovers continued to mount for Lipscomb.
Goodwin hit the last of three straight triples with 7:08 to go, and suddenly, it was 87-82. It was looking doable. FGCU had trimmed a 32-point gap to just five.
But the Eagles were getting tired.
“We got tired having to come back from that deficit. It didn’t help having guys getting in foul trouble,” Dooley said.
And the Bisons were settling down. Three times the Eagles cut the deficit to six, but when Johnson fouled out on a touch foul against Mathews with 3:22 to go, the task looked to get a lot taller.
When Goodwin picked up his fifth foul with under a minute to go, the score 106-94, reality began to set in.
“These guys are my brothers,” Johnson said about the seniors, Goodwin, Christian Terrell, and Antravious Simmons. “They mean everything to me. I feel like we didn’t send them off right.”
It’s not much of a consolation, but thanks to their regular-season conference title, the Eagles do have at least one more game after this.
The Eagles have an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament, that field is drawn hours after the one for the Big Dance on Mar. 11.
“You know what, for our program, being in six straight postseason tournaments for as young of a program as we are, is it demoralizing? No, but it’s disappointing,” Dooley said. “These guys have character, we’ll figure something out.”
Nobody dreams of being in the NIT.
“We don’t settle for average, we don’t settle for second place,” Goodwin said.
NIT Field Announcement, Mar. 11
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