Through the first three games of Atlantic Sun Conference play, the FGCU men’s basketball team found a way to win it down the stretch.
On Thursday, it was a bit of role reversal.
USC-Upstate went eight minutes without scoring, shot less than 25 percent over the final 12 minutes of the game, shot 40 percent from the free throw line – and won.
Michael Buchanan’s putback floater with 1.9 seconds left was the game-winning basket the Spartans needed, as they dropped FGCU 62-60 in front of a stunned near-sellout crowd of 4,582 at Alico Arena on Thursday.
“It’s frustrating,” Eagles coach Joe Dooley said. “You’ve got to win home games in conference. Tonight our focus wasn’t as good as it needs to be and that’s on us.”
The Eagles(14-6, 3-1 ASUN) had fought their way back from trailing by as many as 11, and tied it at 60 with a pair of Zach Johnson free throws with 17.6 seconds to go.
For a moment, it looked like it was be enough, as the Spartans’ Malik Moore drove the lane and missed with about six seconds left. But Buchanan pulled down his 10th rebound of the night, spun to his left, and dropped in the game-winning floater.
“We had the stop, big fella does a great job,” Dooley said. “It was a tough play and he’s a really good player.”
Johnson made a series of big plays in the game’s final four minutes, including a steal and vicious slam to give the Eagles the lead at 56-54 with 2:06 left to play.
But Ramel Thompkins calmly fired a three to take the lead back, and Mike Cunningham, who had a game-high 14 points, hit another on the Spartans next trip down to make it a four-point game with just over a minute left.
Upstate(13-8, 3-1 ASUN) hit 12 threes on 44 percent shooting against an Eagles team which had been allowing just 30.2 percent and entered the day 20th in the nation in three-point defense.
“We dug ourselves in that hole,” Johnson said. “We have veterans on the team and we can’t be doing that. We can’t put ourselves in that position.”
At first it looked like the Eagles were going to pull away quickly. They hit six of their first eight shots, and led 28-16 with 6:50 left in the first.
But after that point they got sluggish. Back-to-back threes fueled by turnovers helped spark a 16-2 Upstate run, giving them a 32-30 halftime lead. The Spartans rolled off another 12-1 run early in the second half to take their largest lead at 50-39 with 12:31 to play.
“Honestly it starts before the game,” junior guard Brandon Goodwin said, who led the Eagles with 12 points. “I don’t think we had much energy earlier in the day and that led into the game.”
There’s no time to dwell, however, as NJIT comes to town on Saturday. Goodwin said the Eagles need to put this one behind them immediately.
“It’s a quick turnaround,” Goodwin said. “Can’t dwell on this too much, need to watch film tomorrow and focus on the next game.”
PLAYING WITH FIRE
All four ASUN games for FGCU have been decided by four points or less, and all four of them have seen the Eagles need to make clutch plays in the final minutes to win.
“At some point it’s just the law of averages,” Dooley said about the Eagles late-game heroics falling short. “There’s no doubt.
16 ASUN games have been played so far, and home teams are just 8-8 in them.
The Eagles are responsible for a fair part of that, taking three on the road to open conference play.
Conventional wisdom says that after getting wins in a hostile environment, playing at home in front of a raucous crowd would be an advantage.
“Homecourt doesn’t mean anything,” Dooley said, quoting New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “You think because you play at home you’re going to win? That’s not the case.”
“We got what we deserved.”
vs. NJIT, Saturday
at North Florida, Wednesday
vs. Jacksonville, Jan. 28
vs. North Florida, Jan. 30
at Jacksonville, Feb. 4
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