PHILADELPHIA — Naturally, college basketball's most outrageous air show since Phi Slama Jama punctuated its latest conquest with two highlight-reel lob dunks.
The Brett Comer-to-Eric McKnight connections were merely part of the historic show as Florida Gulf Coast dusted San Diego State 81-71 Sunday night to become the first No. 15 seed to reach the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.
The Eagles captured the sport's imagination with a fearless upset of second-seeded Georgetown on Friday. Sunday they affirmed their talent and coach Andy Enfield's creative approach.
Lobs, dunks, drop passes: Anything goes with these dudes, and anyone who considers them flukes wasn't watching closely.
Ask Georgetown. Florida Gulf Coast hit the Hoyas with a 22-2 run.
Ask San Diego State. The Eagles finished the Aztecs with a 16-0 binge.
Those are two of college basketball's best defenses, per Ken Pomeroy's efficiency statistics, and Florida Gulf Coast dismantled both.
Sunday the Eagles shot a sterling 55.9 percent from the field and had assists on 21-of-33 field goals. Six players contributing from nine to 23 points accounted for all their scoring, evidence of a selflessness all too rare these days.
By game's end, Florida Gulf Coast's reserves were doing the Dirty Bird on the bench, and fans not only in the Wells Fargo Center but also in living rooms everywhere were high-fiving and applauding in wonder and appreciation.
"We're all about having fun," Eagles guard Sherwood Brown said. "We like to get the crowd involved, as you guys who watched the game, you seen that 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.'"
Even San Diego State (23-11) couldn't help but admire. Jamaal Franklin, the Aztecs' best player, had an animated postgame conversation with Brown, offering congratulations and encouragement.
"They play with a swagger, and they have a right to do that," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "You can have that look and feel, but you have to compete and play to earn your spurs, and they've done that."
The coach of Michigan's Fab Five in 1992 and '93, Fisher is as credible a source on swagger as you'll find.
San Diego State scored 10 points on four possessions late in the first half to seize a 35-29 lead, and for the first time this weekend, Florida Gulf Coast faced a crisis. How would the neophyte Eagles respond?
By staying true to their Dunk City moniker, that's how.
Chase Fieler drove the left baseline, elevated, absorbed contact from DeShawn Stephens and threw it down. He converted the ensuing free throw and then scored in the paint to draw Florida Gulf Coast within 35-34 at intermission.
The Eagles faced another crossroads early in the second half when Brown, their best player, went to the bench with his third foul. All they did was surge to a 52-46 lead when Comer threw a Showtime, between-his-legs drop pass to a trailing Fieler, who finished the break with a layup.
Upon his return, Brown swished a right-wing 3-pointer off a Comer kickout, and the rout was on.
"Words can't describe this feeling as being a 15 seed, the first 15 seed to ever do this," Comer said. "I don't think it's really sunk in to any of us yet. I feel like maybe it will tomorrow, but right now we're on such an emotional high it's hard to come down from."
Five of the six previous No. 15 seeds to win their opening game — Richmond 1991, Santa Clara '93, Hampton 2001, Norfolk State '12 and Lehigh '12 — lost their subsequent outing by a double-figure margin. The exception was the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's Coppin State in 1997.
After upsetting South Carolina, Fang Mitchell's Eagles challenged Texas until the end before losing by a point.
But Florida Gulf Coast (26-10) is a 15 seed like we've never seen. The Eagles are long and athletic, so much so that their postseason media guide has a section titled "White Men Can Jump" touting the high-wire exploits of Fieler and Eddie Murray.
Not that they're alone. McKnight, Brown, Bernard Thompson and others also can levitate, and they are, collectively, positively joyous and remarkable to watch, much like Houston's Phi Slama Jama group in 1983.
As usual, the ringleaders Friday were Thompson (23 points), Brown (17 points) and Comer (14 assists and 10 points).
Florida Gulf Coast advances to Friday's South Regional semifinals in suburban Dallas against Florida. The Eagles already have beaten a renowned in-state team this season, topping ACC champion Miami in November.
Cool thing is, Florida Gulf Coast does not look like a one-hit wonder. Brown, the Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year, is the Eagles' lone senior starter, and transfers from Georgia Tech and Marquette (6-foot-10 Nate Hicks and 6-6 Jamail Jones) become eligible next season.
The question is will Enfield, the second-year head coach who worked as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and, most recently, Florida State, resist the job offers sure to come his way?
Florida Gulf Coast was 39-82 in its first four seasons of Division I. Last year, the Eagles improved to 15-17 in Enfield's debut.
"I don't know if most of you know this," Enfield said of the university's humble beginnings, "but 17 years ago there were a bunch of trailers around dirt fields, and then some buildings were built and then some dormitories or apartments, and eventually they built Alico Arena, our beautiful place, 11 years ago. It was a Division II school. They kept building, kept growing, and finally they went Division I (in 2007-08)."
Now they've made history.
And they might not be finished.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun