Championship televised on ESPN2 Saturday at 7 p.m.
MACON, Ga. – Fueled by arguably its best defensive performance of the season, the sixth-seeded FGCU men’s basketball team rallied from six points down late in the second half to stun second-seeded Mercer, 62-58, on its home court to advance to the Atlantic Sun Championship Saturday night shown live on ESPN2 at 7 p.m.
Playing in front of a University Center record crowd of 3,497 fans, the Eagles (15-16), who defeated third-seeded USC Upstate in the quarterfinals, turned away another top seed in Mercer (22-11) to become just the sixth team in the 33-year history of the A-Sun Tournament to make the championship in its first appearance. The Eagles appearance in the championship will also mark the third straight year that the tournament’s No. 6 seed has made the final.
Trailing 54-49 with 6:18 remaining, the Eagles clamped down on the defensive end, holding the Bears without a field goal the rest of the way. FGCU gave up points on just 3-of-12 defensive possessions over the final 6:18 and all four points came at the free throw line.
The defense started to fuel the offense, which started the second half with just four points in the first eight minutes, as freshman Filip Cvjeticanin’s (Zagreb, Croatia/American School of Madrid) three-pointer followed by three straight points from seniorKevin Cantinol (Clearwater, Fla./Calvary Christian HS/Ole Miss) brought the Eagles within two, 54-52, with 4:55 to play.
Behind a trio of free throws, Mercer held a one-possession lead with 3:13 to play, but would go it’s next two possessions without a point leaving the door open for FGCU. Freshman point guard Brett Comer (Winter Park, Fla./Winter Park HS) buried a jumper on the Green and Blue’s next possession and following a Mercer turnover, he drew a foul going to the rim as the shot clock wound down. Comer stepped to the line and made 1-of-2 to tie the game at 57-57, bringing the sellout crowd to its feet.
Both teams went a possession without scoring and with 37 seconds remaining after a Mercer timeout, freshman Bernard Thompson (Conyers, Ga./Rockdale County HS) picked up his team-best 57th and most important steal of the season. Thompson pushed the ball ahead to junior Sherwood Brown (Orlando, Fla./Olympia HS) who was fouled. Brown confidently made both to give FGCU its first lead since the 4:36 mark of the first half, 59-57, with 35 seconds remaining.
An FGCU foul late into the next possession sent Mercer’s Travis Smith to the free throw line with 12 seconds left and a chance to the tie the game, but his second attempt came up short and was rebounded by freshman Bernard Thompson (Conyers, Ga./Rockdale County HS), who was quickly fouled. Thompson made the second of two to give FGCU a 60-58 with 10 seconds on the clock.
Mercer went to the game’s leading scorer Jakob Gollon on its next possession, and the redshirt sophomore drew a foul with 2.7 seconds left. After missing the first, Gollon purposely missed the second, but a Mercer lane violation was called, giving the ball back to FGCU.
Fittingly, FGCU found it’s best free throw shooter Christophe Varidel (Versoix, Switzerland/Worcester Academy) with its inbound pass. Varidel, who turned in another gutsy effort off the bench with 13 points, calmly sank both free throws for the 62-58 final, continuing the Eagles’ improbable run at an NCAA Tournament berth.
With near identical stat lines across the board, FGCU’s biggest edge came from the bench where they out-scored the Bears 25-11. Varidel’s 13 points came one night after going for 14 against USC Upstate off the bench. The Versoix, Switzerland product’s double figure game was the 36th supplied by the FGCU bench this season, leading the way for the team’s 22nd contest with 25+ points from the pine.
For the game, FGCU shot 44 percent (21-48) from the field and committed just 10 turnovers. On the flipside, Mercer finished with a 41 percent shooting clip (21-51) and held a 13-6 advantage in second chance points thanks to 13 offensive boards.
Brown was the only other Eagle in double figures with a team-high 14 points and five rebounds over 37 minutes. The Orlando, Fla. product has saved his best for last, reaching double figures in 12 of the last 13 games, leading the team in scoring six times and rebounding on nine occasions.
A big part FGCU’s limiting its turnovers to fewer than 14 for the seventh time in the last 10 games was Comer, who had nine points, five rebounds and five assists. Fieler also added nine points in his team-best 24th straight start.
The aforementioned Gollon led all scorers with 17 points, including 12 in the first half, to go along with a game-high eight rebounds. A-Sun All-Conference first team point guard Langston Hall was Mercer’s other double-digit scorer with 16 points, but was forced into five turnovers, including Thompson’s steal that led to Brown’s free throws that proved to be the decisive points.