FORT MYERS, Fla. – A 17-2 run that stretched from the end of the first half through the first two minutes of the second helped ETSU build a double-digit lead and eventually hold off a late push from the FGCU men’s basketball team for a 66-59 Atlantic Sun win Friday night at Alico Arena.
The hard-fought loss against the second place Buccaneers drops the Eagles’ record to 5-16 overall and 2-10 in the A-Sun. ETSU, who has won 13 of its last 14 games, is now 17-8 on the season and just one-game back of Belmont for first place at 12-2 in the conference.
“I thought we fought hard and never gave up,” said head coach Dave Balza. “That being said, we’ve got to put together a full 40 minutes against a team the caliber of ETSU. We’re making strides each game and we’ll continue to do that the rest of the season.”
For the sixth time in the last eight games, freshman Christophe Varidel (Versoix, Switzerland/Worcester Academy) led the Blue and Green in scoring with 19 points. Varidel knocked down three trifectas, giving him nine straight contests with at least three long range field goals. Redshirt sophomore Anthony Banks (Lantana, Fla./Santaluces HS) scored all 11 of his points in the second half, while junior Kevin Cantinol (Guadeloupe, French West Indies/Calvary Christian/Ole Miss) also had 11 points and seven boards.
Junior Mike Smith, who had 20 points and 20 rebounds in the first meeting this season, scored 14 of his team-high 16 points in the second half to lead ETSU. Micah Williams played all 40 minutes and scored 15 points.
The opening five minutes of each half were vital in the outcome, as the Buccaneers out-scored the Eagles 24-11 over the combined 10 minutes. ETSU also turned 20 Eagle turnovers into 26 points.
FGCU continued its recent dominance on the boards, out-rebounding the Bucs, 35-31, highlighted by 13 offensive rebounds to help offset the turnovers. The Eagles turned those 13 offensive caroms into a 17-5 advantage in second chance points. Freshman Chase Fieler (Parkersburg, W. Va./Parkersburg South) grabbed a game and season-high 11 boards.
For the game, FGCU shot just 36 percent (18-50), but came back strong in the second half to shoot 48 percent (13-27). ETSU finished at a 43 percent clip (23-54) for the game. Both teams were solid at the free throw line combining to make 33-of-39 (FGCU; 19-of-23).
ETSU opened the game on a 12-1 run over the first 4:14, as the Eagles missed their first nine shots from the field. On the flipside, the Buccaneers knocked down five of their first six, including back-to-back threes to close the run.
FGCU’s first five points came at the free throw line until junior Marlon Rivera (Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico/Sagemont HS/Santa Fe CC) broke the streak at the 10:52 mark with a layup. Rivera’s layup helped kick-start a 14-3 scoring spurt by the Blue and Green that included nine straight points and the Buccaneers going nearly eight minutes without a point. Varidel dropped a couple of threes during the comeback as the score evened at 15-15 with 7:40 remaining.
After an ETSU free throw gave the visitors a one-point edge, 16-15, Cantinol gave the Eagles their first lead of the game and brought the Alico Arena crowd of 1,523 out of their seats with a dunk on a behind-the back pass from Varidel.
The two teams traded baskets over the next four minutes until the fourth tie of the half brought the score to 21-21 with 4:43 on the clock.
ETSU closed the half strong, though, scoring the game’s next nine points to take a 30-23 lead at the break. Varidel accounted for 11 of FGCU’s 23 points in the opening frame, as the Eagles managed just five field goals, but did go 11-of-14 from the stripe.
The Buccaneers expanded on their 9-2 run to close the half by scoring the first eight points of the final frame to balloon the scoring spur to 17-2 and take the largest lead of the game at that point, 38-23, with 18:02 on the clock.
With ETSU holding a 53-37 lead at the 11:19 mark, FGCU charged back into the game with an 11-0 run that cut the deficit to five, at 53-48. Varidel capped the run with three straight free throws after being fouled shooting a three for the second time in the game. He was a perfect 8-of-8 at the line on the night.
The Eagles cut the score to five just minutes later at the 5:10 mark, 55-50, but ETSU’s Smith knocked down a triple from the left baseline to stop the FGCU comeback attempt and help the Bucs eventually build their lead back to double figures and hold on for the seven-point win.
FGCU will conclude its home weekend on Super Bowl Sunday at 1 p.m. when it hosts USC Upstate in another Atlantic Sun showdown. The game will be the first meeting between the two teams after the Jan. 10 meeting in Spartanburg, S.C. was postponed due to snow. The teams will make up the game on Feb. 28.