Florida Gulf Coast showed once again that it can rise to the occasion in the NCAA Tournament.
It wasn’t the same “Dunk City” gang that captured the nation’s attention during an improbable Sweet 16 run in 2013, but the Eagles controlled the boards and blew past overmatched Fairleigh Dickinson 96-65 in a play-in game Tuesday night.
Marc-Eddy Norelia opened the game with a dunk, two of his 20 points on the night to lead the Eagles, 21-13. Florida Gulf Coast never relinquished the lead, going on a 23-6 run in the first 10 minutes and opening a 40-19 lead at the half.
Fairleigh Dickinson got some looks but couldn’t get much to fall, shooting just 33 percent from the field while playing thoroughly lackluster defense. It was one of the team’s worst shooting performances of the season.
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Florida Gulf Coast relied on outmuscling its opponent’s big men inside and controlling the boards, while making 60 percent of its shots from the field.
“That’s what got us here,” Norelia said of the inside game. “Coach made the game plan and said we’re going to do what we’ve been doing, and it worked for us.”
Julian Debose and Christian Terrell both added 14 for Florida Gulf Coast, and Demetris Morant chipped in 10. After Norelia’s opening slam, Brian Greene Jr. closed the scoring with a dunk for FGCU.
Norelia was 10 for 11 from the field while grabbing 10 rebounds. Florida Gulf Coast outrebounded the smaller, less-aggressive Fairleigh Dickinson squad 52-33.
“We knew they were very good, very long, very well-coached,” Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda said. “And tonight they played that way. I’m disappointed we didn’t play our basketball, Fairleigh Dickinson basketball, in the first half.”
Earl Potts Jr. led Fairleigh Dickinson, 18-15, with 16 points despite sitting a good chunk of the second half with four fouls. Marques Townes added 13.
The 19 points at halftime was the lowest offensive output of any half for Fairleigh Dickinson.
Florida Gulf Coast will need some more magic as it takes on top-seeded North Carolina on Thursday.
“We’re just going to stay confident and believe in ourselves and give it our best effort,” Norelia said. “Anything can happen.”
The Eagles already proved that three years ago.