FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Sarah Hansen knows her school can make noise in the NCAA tournament. After all, she plays at Florida Gulf Coast.
And maybe "Dunk City" will become "3 City" this time around.
It was the FGCU men who became the feel-good story of last year's NCAA field, dunking their way to the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 15 seed. This time, it's the FGCU women (26-7) who are heading to the Big Dance, and memories of last season's hysteria are helping the Eagles enter this tournament brimming with confidence.
"It's absolutely inspiring. What they did was incredible," said Hansen, FGCU's senior leader. "They set so many records. The first 15 seed to get to the Sweet Sixteen. They had an incredible run and it just goes to show you that just because you're not expected to win, when everyone is doubting you, you can still do it."
So going above the rim was the weapon of choice for the FGCU men. For this FGCU women's team, which opens its tourney quest as a No. 12 seed and will face fifth-seeded Oklahoma State (23-8) on Saturday morning at West Lafayette, Ind., the strength comes from long range.
Of the 64 teams in the women's field, no one makes more 3-pointers than the Eagles, who on average connect more than 10 times per game from beyond the arc. The 3 has been a staple of coach Karl Smekso's program for years — with a record of 314-63 in his 12 FGCU seasons, his approach clearly works — but it's hardly the only weapon this team has.
"I think there's a lot of excitement about March basketball and this year it does seem heightened because of what the men were able to accomplish," Smesko said. "It was a pretty special, pretty rare occurrence. A lot of people started paying attention to basketball at FGCU, particularly the men's side, but there's more awareness in general."
FGCU's women made it to the NCAA's in their first season of Division I eligibility two seasons ago, losing to St. Bonaventure in a game that the Eagles felt — and probably rightly so — that they should have won. And they fell in last season's Atlantic Sun title game to Stetson, costing them a repeat trip to the tournament and creating an obvious source of inspiration to get it done this season.
This year, the Stetson loss was avenged, with FGCU beating the Hatters in overtime to clinch the NCAA trip. Jenna Cobb, an 8-point-per-game scorer throughout the course of the season, averaged 20.5 per game in FGCU's final two outings of the A-Sun tournament, including 19 in the championship game.
"The way that everybody's playing, everybody has confidence," Cobb said. "From the way we started out the season to now, we're really, really clicking. Not only do I have personal confidence, but there's a good team confidence in general as far as how we're going to do."
Seeing upsets actually happen up close last season is an obvious good reminder that underdogs can in fact win in the NCAA tournament, and it's something Hansen and her team have been working toward for some time.
Case in point: Less than an hour after the FGCU men lost at home in the A-Sun title game, Hansen was on the same floor with a few teammates, working on conditioning and shooting. She's already been named as an inductee to the school's next athletic Hall of Fame class, plus has played in every one of FGCU's 110 wins over the last four seasons.
The one thing she hasn't done yet is be part of an NCAA win.
"It's not something you forget, being part of something so big and seeing it slip away," Hansen said. "It's absolutely in the back of my mind and I'm pretty sure it's in the back of the minds for our team as well."