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The Scholarly Spotlight: Florida Gulf Coast Eagles Women's Basketball

There are many things that make the NCAA tournament entertaining to play in. A popular reason why is the unexpected upsets. One of the teams in women's college basketball who is no stranger to being an underdog is the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. The last two seasons they made the NCAA tournament by winning the ASUN Conference tournament, but they were ranked as a 12-seed. In 2022 they surprisingly upset Virginia Tech in the first round, then the Washington State Cougars last season. Now they've three-peated as ASUN tournament champions, once again receiving an automatic bid into the Big Dance. The Eagles are repeating history ranked as a 12-seed in the Albany 1 Region, facing off against Oklahoma. With FGCU repeatedly being under appreciated, do they have the talent to make a Cinderella-type run?

FGCU is coached by Karl Smesko, who is in his 22nd with the Eagles. He has lead them to a 28-4 overall record including 16-0 in conference. The leading scorer this season for FGCU is Emani Jefferson (E-MAHN-E). The junior guard is averaging 16.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game. She has been given a bigger role ever since she transferred from Memphis, which has improved her shooting and defense. Jefferson is has shooting splits of 54.2/26.3/80.3% this year, but she has proven to be a streaky shooter. Whether she shoots well or not, her three-point shot seems to mostly be a weakness. Even though she's not a very reliable three-point shooter, Jefferson knows other ways to get a basket. On defense, she has immensely improved. During her two seasons with Memphis, Jefferson never averaged more than 1.5 steals per game, but now with the Eagles she has surpassed that. She ranks fourth on the team in defensive win shares at 1.8, but her impact to the Eagles' success is greatly felt, especially on offense. She has 4.3 offensive win shares, which leads the team. In their conference championship win, she scored a game-high 20 points to go along with 8 rebounds and 5 assists. Jefferson has excelled in her scoring role, but FGCU's success has been a team effort with help around her stepping up as well.

While Jefferson was the do-it-all guard for the Eagles, Uju Ezeudu (Oo-Jew Eh-Z-oo-do) is doing it all for them as a post player. She is averaging 13.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game in her senior year. Standing at 6'0", Ezeudu is a walking double-double for the Eagles, especially in their conference tournament. Her most impressive game was against Austin Peay, where she scored 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 steals. Ezeudu impacts the Eagles' success the most, leading the team in win shares at 6.6. She also leads the team in defensive win shares with 2.6, and ranks second with 4.0 offensive win shares. Both Jefferson and Ezeudu aren't the best outside shooters, so where is FGCU getting their outside scoring from? There's another senior that could be an x-factor for a team starving for an NCAA Tourmament upset.

Dolly Cairns (CAR-ns) is in her first year with the Eagles, after transferring from the University of Rhode Island. She is averaging 9.2 points, 3.1 assists, and has 42.2/35.3/71.4% shooting splits. In their win against # 18 North Carolina early in the season, she scored 18 points, while hitting four three's with 100% accuracy in the upset. Cairns becomes an X-factor with her ability to shoot from outside, which can generate upsets like the one against UNC. FGCU plays in a relatively weak conference, but they can be a team that upsets a higher seed thanks to their non-conference opponents. They faced USC, Iowa, North Carolina, and Duke who are in the tournament. While they lost to all but UNC, that experience paired with their recent success could propel them to a first round upset.

The ASUN conference is a weak conference in Division One, which generally means the Eagles should dominate in every facet of the game. They do exactly that, leading the conference in points per game (75.0), points allowed (54.5), assists (15.0), and point differential (+20.5). In the NCAA tournament, what often separates teams is the ability to get three-point looks. FGCU is averaging 30.2 three point attempts, while converting 31.4%. They have players who can get hot like Cairns and Jefferson, which is important to get past Oklahoma. One key component to a Cinderella run is getting hot at the right time. The Eagles have been soaring high ever since their loss to Duke, winning 21 games in a row. Even though most of them were in the conference, it's important for FGCU to carry that winning momentum into the big dance. As fans fill out their brackets, most will overlook a team like Florida Gulf Coast. However, they have the talent and the coaching to bust the brackets of those that don't believe in the Eagles.


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