The FGCU men’s basketball team (7-7) scored the first eight points of the game and never looked back as the Eagles received a season-high 20 points from Julian DeBose and four other double-figure scorers as they rolled to an 86-77 victory over La Salle (4-6) Thursday afternoon at Alico Arena.
Redshirt sophomore Antravious Simmons recorded his first career double-double with career bests of 17 points and 10 rebounds, while redshirt junior Marc-Eddy Norelia just missed his seventh double-double of the year with 15 points and nine rebounds. Redshirt senior DeBose matched his scoring career high set his sophomore year at Rice, while sophomore Christian Terrell added 11 points and redshirt freshman Zach Johnson reached double figures for the fourth time this season with 10 points – all of which came in the second half as he repeatedly and aggressively slashed through the La Salle zone.
Simmons got the start and scored six of FGCU’s first eight points as La Salle began the game by turning the ball over on its first four possessions. That set the tone for the duration of the contest as the Eagles built a lead as large as 19, 37-18, in the first half and never led by fewer than six points the rest of the way en route to snapping a three-game losing streak and earning their second victory over an Atlantic 10 Conference member this season.
“Tre (Simmons) got us off to a great start and that helped everyone else get off to a good start,” commented FGCU head coach Joe Dooley. “We had some spurts where we played really well and some spots where we were very careless. We didn’t play one of our best defensive games, but we rebounded the ball well and Julian stepped up to make some timely shots, and we shot very well from the free-throw line as well which helped significantly.”
The Eagles shot 83.3 percent (20-24) from the free-throw line, tied for a season best along with – coincidently enough the other A-10 foe they have faced this year – Massachusetts (15-18). For the game from the floor, FGCU connected at a 46.8-percent clip (29-62) compared with 46.6 percent (27-58) by La Salle.
Both teams shot at least 50 percent from the field in the second half, but the biggest difference from the floor was FGCU’s 3-point shooting in the final 20 minutes as after going 5-15 in the first half from beyond the arc, the Eagles made three of their four attempts in the second stanza, compared with 5-14 by La Salle. The Explorers – who received a combined 55 points from Cleon Roberts and Jordan Price – finished the game 10-28 from 3-point range (35.7 percent), while FGCU – which faced a zone defense for a lot of the contest – went 8-19 (42.1 percent).
After La Salle trimmed a 12-3 FGCU lead to 12-9 early in the first half, DeBose knocked down three-straight 3-pointers – the most 3s he’s made in an entire game this year – to push the lead to 21-13 at the 9:30 mark. The lead grew to 27-18 with about 5 minutes remaining in the stanza when Filip Cvjeticanin hit consecutive 3-pointers 30 seconds apart – the first time he’s made multiple 3s in a game since Nov. 23 – to push the Green and Blue lead to 33-18. Those long-range conversions spearheaded a 10-0 FGCU run to create the aforementioned largest lead of the afternoon.
In the second half, the Explorers made a few runs at the Eagles and on multiple occasions got their deficit to single digits. However, each time FGCU had a response, with the last – and most important – rebuttal coming after La Salle trimmed it to 67-61 with 5:30 remaining. On the ensuring FGCU possession, DeBose hit a 3-pointer to start an 8-0 Eagles’ run to nudge the lead back to 14, 75-61, and out of reach.
Roberts finished with a game-high 30 points for La Salle, while Price – who entered as the nation’s 12th-leading scorer at 22.6 per game – finished with 25 points and a team-best eight rebounds. Four of La Salle’s five starters played at least 35 minutes as the Explorers played with just six scholarship players and seven total – one of whom logged less than a minute.
DeBose is the fifth different player the deep and talented Eagles have had that’s led them in scoring this year. He, and his teammates, took advantage of La Salle’s 16 turnovers as the Green and Blue converted them into 22 points, and the Eagles also held a 39-29 edge on the glass (14-7 offensive) which they capitalized into 19 second-chance points compared with only five for the Explorers.
The nine-point final margin represented the seventh-straight game for youthful FGCU which has been decided by 10 points or less, and 10 of its 12 Division-I games this year. The Eagles – who entered the game by having 83 percent of their scoring, 86 percent of their rebounding and 87 percent of their assists coming from non-seniors – have played an extremely challenging schedule.
In addition to the two A-10 wins (77-76 over UMass), the Eagles lost tight contests to Louisiana Tech (66-63), South Dakota State (56-52) and then-No. 18 Texas A&M (75-65), and had a halftime lead at Florida, 33-32, before falling short, 70-50. All four of those losses came against teams which were ranked in the top-50 of the RPI entering the week as only Dayton (6), Wichita State (5) and follow Atlantic Sun Conference member Kennesaw State (5) had faced more top-50 foes than the Eagles.
The victory levels FGCU’s record at 7-7 entering January – the same exact mark the Eagles had in 2013-14 when they went on to win the A-Sun regular-season title and automatic berth to the NIT. FGCU is now 49-10 at Alico Arena since 2012-13. The Eagles are 6-3 at home this year, were 13-4 last year, went 15-2 in 2013-14 and 15-1 in 2012-13.
The matchup pitted a pair of schools which combined to make NCAA Tournament history in 2013. While FGCU captured the country’s attention with its high-flying Dunk City attack en route to becoming the only 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Sweet Sixteen, La Salle flew under the radar nationally but advanced to the Sweet Sixteen the same year as a 13 seed. It marked the first time in NCAA Tournament history that two teams seeded 13 or worse advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the same year.
As most conferences around the country enter league play with the turn of the calendar to 2016, FGCU won’t play its first A-Sun game until Jan. 9, leaving the Eagles with a pair of non-D-I opponents to conclude the non-conference docket. The Green and Blue will play host to D-II Eckerd (12-1) as the first game in a men’s and women’s doubleheader on Saturday, Jan. 2, at 4 p.m. Fans will have the opportunity to meet the team after the game in the auxiliary gym inside Alico Arena, and those with a ticket to the men’s game will be permitted to stay at no charge to watch the women (11-4 and winners of eight of nine) face Hartford at 7 p.m.