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Florida Gulf Coast -- biggest thing in sports -- gets Florida in Sweet 16

PHILADELPHIA -- The funny thing is that they're just as loose off the court as they are on it, full of great stories and quotes, happy to talk to anybody and everybody. And, yes, they're just as blown away by all of this as you are. They admit it and display it.

"Wow," said Florida Gulf Coast's Eric McKnight when I told him his ridiculous and vicious alley-oop was trending on Twitter. Then I told him he and his teammates are the biggest story in sports. Not just college basketball. Sports. All of sports. Including everything.

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"Really?" McKnight asked. "Wow. Wow. Wow. This is all very hard to believe."

Perhaps because it's unprecedented.

Florida Gulf Coast made history here Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center with an 81-71 victory against San Diego State that made the Eagles the first 15 seed in NCAA tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16. So now the greatest (and newest) show in college basketball -- Florida Dunk Coast -- is headed to Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys Stadium. To play the University of Florida. For a trip to the Elite Eight. And how perfect is this story?

This Atlantic Sun member that didn't hold its first class until 1997 is now an international deal, and not only because it's in the Sweet 16. No, it's more than that. It's the way the Eagles did this, how they got here. With lobs on lobs on lobs on lobs and dunks on dunks on dunks on dunks. Understand, this remarkable run -- which started Friday against Georgetown and continued with this destruction of SDSU -- didn't feel fluky. For 80 consecutive minutes, Florida Gulf Coast was the aggressor, the attacker, way more than merely a so-called low-major getting fortunate by hitting lots of 3-pointers.

That said, they weren't that sharp in the opening 20 minutes Sunday.

McKnight was asked what coach Andy Enfield's halftime speech entailed.

"He [told us we] played like s--- in the first half," McKnight said, matter-of-factly. "Then he brought us all together and told us to turn up. So that's what we did."

Boy, did they ever.

What followed was a fascinating 20 minutes that captured the nation's attention, overshadowed the Marshall Henderson Show that was airing at the same time and solidified FGCU as a story for now and forever. The Eagles led by as many as 19 in the second half, thanks to what ended up being a 23-point effort from Bernard Thompson. They never stopped running, never stopped attacking, never stopped trying to toss lobs and wreck rims, which had the sellout crowd of 20,125 mostly non-FGCU fans standing and cheering and high-fiving each other.

"We're all about having fun ... and we like to get the crowd involved," said Florida Gulf Coast guard Sherwood Brown, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. "Over the course of the game, the whole crowd started to get behind us even if they are not from Fort Myers. Or, as I like to say, 'Dunk City.'"

Yes, Fort Myers is now Dunk City.

That's what this coach and these players have created.

They are 14 lightly recruited prospects led by a man who was, before Friday, more famous for the model he married than for anything he'd done on or off the court. Now they're stars, every last one of them. And how in the world did Florida Gulf Coast only finish second in the Atlantic Sun and lose twice to a Lipscomb team that went 12-18 this season?

"They're our kryptonite," Florida Gulf Coast's Eddie Murray joked. "We're just glad we don't have to see [Lipscomb] in the Sweet 16."

Murray is a local product, by the way.

He graduated from Bishop Verot High in Fort Myers.

He was raised a Gators fan.

"I was a Florida fan before FGCU even existed," Murray said. "I loved watching Al Horford and Corey Brewer and all those guys play. They were fun to watch."

And did UF ever recruit him?

Did Murray ever even get a form letter?

"No. No chance," he said with a laugh. "Not for basketball."

And yet, next Friday -- in our nation's most breathtaking dome -- Murray and his teammates will square off against Florida, against Billy Donovan, against a bunch of players who were all more heralded coming out of high school. This tournament, as usual, has provided a storyline no reasonable person could have anticipated.

"That is going to be a great deal," McKnight said. "It's going to be so much fun because we'll have a chance to prove who's the best in Florida."

And who is the best in Florida?

"FGCU," McKnight answered. "FGCU."

 
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