MACON, Ga. - The Stetson men's basketball team's (15-16) 2012-13 season came to an end at the hands of Florida Gulf Coast (23-10) in the Atlantic Sun Conference Semifinals Friday night. The Hatters fell to the Eagles by a score of 72-58 at Hawkins Arena, as FGCU kept Stetson from reaching its first A-Sun Final since 1994.
"We're disappointed," Stetson head coach Casey Alexander said following the loss. "I have to give Florida Gulf Coast a lot of credit. They just played better than we did, and we never really could get into a rhythm. When we had to have stops down the stretch to stay in it, I guess fatigue took over or something, but we didn't get it done."
For two of the top scoring teams in the league, this one got out to an extremely slow start as the Hatters and the Eagles were tied at 8-8 through 10 minutes of the first half. Neither team was able to gain much of an advantage until FGCU used an 8-0 to take a 19-13 lead on a Chase Fieler dunk with 5:16 to play in the period.
Junior Chris Perez, who scored Stetson's final seven points of the frame, also tallied five of the last six points overall in the first half to bring the Hatters within two at the break. Curling aggressively around a dribble handoff to score two while getting fouled when FGCU was called for goaltending, Perez sparked the late Hatter run. On the next possession he knocked down a long two-point jumper to make it 23-22.
FGCU's Sherwood Brown hit one out of two free throws after getting fouled on an inbounds play to give the Eagles a 24-22 lead at halftime. The 2013 A-Sun Player of the Year scored 16 of FGCU's 24 points during the first 20 minutes of action.
A tip-in by Eric McKnight opened up the second half, and ignited a 9-0 FGCU run that put the Eagles on top 33-22 less than three minutes into the period. McKnight and Bernard Thompson scored all nine points during the stretch.
The Hatters continued to fight to get back in the game, and did so with a 6-0 run that cut the deficit back to just five points, at 33-28. Another traditional three-point play by Perez concluded the run at the 15:15 mark in the second frame.
Stetson got as close as four points, when free throws by junior Aaron Graham and senior Liam McInerney were followed by another Perez layup made it 37-33 in favor of the Eagles with 12:32 remaining. That was when a 10-2 run by FGCU put the Hatters down by 13 points, at 50-37, and left the Eagles in control.
Stetson got as close as 10 points a couple of times, but could never cut the FGCU lead to single digits during the final eight minutes of action. FGCU went on to win by the final score of 72-58.
The Hatters never gave up the fight though, as exemplified by senior Joel Naburgs in the final few minutes of play. The guard, in the final game of his career, turned the ball over to the Eagles. There was just 1:16 left in the contest, and Stetson was down 12 points, but Naburgs sprinted as fast as he could to catch the speedy Thompson, break up a dunk, and send the Eagle to the line.
"That's what I want our team to look like," Alexander said of the effort by Naburgs. "I want a lot of fight, guys that want to play and give their best effort regardless of time and score."
Stetson shot just 33.9 percent for the game, its lowest output on the season, and was 3-of-21 (14.3%) from beyond the arc. Those numbers became very difficult to overcome as FGCU began to hit its shots in the second half.
Senior Adam Pegg led the Hatters with 17 points and eight rebounds in his final game as a Hatter, while Perez added 15 points and two steals. Naburgs chipped in with nine points, junior Willie Green added eight rebounds, and junior Hunter Miller finished with six assists.
It was an up-and-down season for the Hatters, but when all was said and done, Stetson finished with six more wins overall, and five more wins in A-Sun play, than any season since 2008-09. The Hatters made the conference tournament for the first time since that year, earning the three seed, and advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 2005-06.
"It's a great first step for us," Alexander said of the season. "We want it to become the normal, obviously, and that's what I told our four seniors in the locker room. I want them to be able to look back and be able to legitimately take the credit for getting Stetson over the hump, and being the group that turned the program around."