MACON, Ga. -- As Stetson finished its pregame warm-ups Saturday and headed to bench for player introductions, the pep band, cheerleaders, and Hatter fans all started chanting, "I believe that we will win!"
The players must have believed it, too.
Stetson pulled off a victory for the ages, rallying from a 15-point, second-half deficit to shock top-seed and undefeated FGCU 70-64, capturing the 2013 Atlantic Sun Conference Championship and the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"This is so unbelievable and I never felt anything like this," sophomore C.J. Coddington said during the postgame celebration. "I am so excited and so proud of my teammates. We couldn't have done this without each other and our coaches."
Sasha Sims broke a 64-64 tie with a 10-foot jumper to the left of the lane with 21 seconds remaining, and Cherisse Burris rebounded a missed three-point attempt by Joyce Iamstrong in the closing seconds and the celebration was on.
"I heard the crowd and the bench went crazy, but I was just trying to put the ball in basket," Sims said. "I was trying to find the open man but couldn't find anyone, so I knew I had no choice but to shoot it and make it."
The Hatters played tenacious defense in the first half inside the paint, but FGCU knocked down nine three-pointers to take a 40-27 lead at halftime.
"We knew we were going to have to fight," Stetson head coach Lynn Bria said. "We knew it was going to be a battle. I just felt like if we could stay close then we would have a real chance to win the game.
"I felt like the start of the second half was a real key," Bria added. "The last couple times we played them they jumped out on us in the start of the second half. We just hung in there. We got stops when we needed it. I'm just proud of our entire team. It really was a total team effort."
Trailing 56-42 with 13:13 to go, the Hatters went on 9-0 run to cut the deficit to three. Sims blocked Sarah Hansen twice on back-to-back shot attempts, then ran the floor and finished off a three-point play.
The chants of "Let's Go Hats!" continued to grow louder from the crowd.
"It helped a lot to hear that," senior Shanasa Sanders said. "Coach talked to us before the game about people not believing in us, but when we heard the band and the Stetson fans behind us, we knew we had to do it. In the huddle we said, 'It was now or never'."
The teams traded points down the stretch until Coddington tied the game with a free throw at the 1:33 mark. Burris put Stetson in front for the first time since early in the game with 54 seconds left.
"I am so excited," Burris said after the game. "This is my first time winning conference. I finished second every time in state (high school), and I couldn't be any happier. I love my team."
The Eagles (27-6) weren't done as Iamstrong, the tournament's MVP, hit a tough shot while falling down to knot the game at 64. It would the last points for FGCU.
Sims knocked down the go-ahead jumper and Burris and Sanders hit four final free throws to cap the improbable comeback. The Eagles had won 41 consecutive conference games (including the postseason) over the past two seasons, but that streak ended Saturday.
Sims led four Hatters in double figures with 15 points. Victoria McGowan and Burris each scored 14, and Sanders chipped in 12. Stetson outscored FGCU 43-24 in the second half.
"It's an incredible feeling," said McGowan, who along with Sims was selected to the all-tournament team. "It was the championship game and we knew we had to come out with a win."
Stetson (24-8), which won its school-record 24th game of the season, will be heading to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history, and for the second time in the last three years. The Hatters will find out its destination on Monday March 18 in the tournament selection show on ESPN.
Notes: It was Stetson's fourth A-Sun title (1989, 2005, 2011, 2013) ... The Hatters have been to the NCAA tournament twice before (2005, 2011) and both times traveled to Knoxville, Tenn. ... Head Coach Lynn Bria won her third A-Sun title (1999, 2011, 2013) ... Assistant Coach Jenna Burkett has been a part of three conference championships (once as a player at Robert Morris, and once prior as an assistant coach at James Madison) ... After the game, President Dr. Wendy Libby said: "They just came back more than I had ever seen before. I just knew they could do it. We believed that we could win and we did it. What a great team effort and great coaching." ... Athletic Director Jeff Altier said: "It was an amazing comeback and a tremendous victory." ... Stetson's team bus will return to the Edmunds Center at noon on Sunday.