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FGCU Eagles snaps 2-game losing streak, soar past Zips

FGCU was struggling, as they had a 2-game losing streak, but redshirt sophomore Haley Laughter stepped up in a BIG way for the Eagles.

Photo by Linwood Ferguson

Akron, OH -- The Florida Gulf Coast women's basketball team soared over the University of Akron and closed out its trip to the 2015 Akron Classic with a win. Establishing dribble penetration to ignite its offense proved to be key for the Eagles (2-2) as they cruised to an 82-64 victory in James A. Rhodes Arena on Saturday afternoon.

"We were kind of disappointed with our performance yesterday, and I think there as a sense in the team that we could play better, and we're happy to beat a good team on the road," FGCU head coach Karl Smesko said. "This something we needed and we feel like it was a positive step forward."

After struggling throughout the first period, FGCU opened the second period with a 12-3 run to take control of the game, building a 26-20 advantage. The Eagles changed one thing offensively, and the adjustment proved to be effective. They utilized the speed and ball handling abilities of their plucky guards to penetrate the 3-2 perimeter zone that had worked so well for Akron (2-2) throughout the first quarter.

Taking away open lanes to the basket, Akron succeeded in forcing FCGU to look outside. However, with shooters waiting on the perimeter, the Eagles didn't mind settling for 3-pointers.

"We started off really slowly shooting again," Smesko said. "Fortunately, we picked up. It was good once we started hitting a couple of them. They (Akron) were in the zone, and we were just going to stretch them out and make them chase a little bit and eventually there was going to be somebody with a wide-open look. Against the zone, we weren't challenging inside too much.

"It was mainly open three, divert the ball to try to get another open three."

As the Zips tried to implement a man-to-man defense, things only compounded. FCGU picked up the intensity of the game, driving past Akron defenders and fighting the ball over its forwards.

The Eagles ability to establish a quick first dribble and turn the corner around the Zips, splitting defenders and finding a lane to the basket, forced Akron to stay honest on defense — to help stop the attacking guards or take away outside shooting threats.

With Akron playing off the arc, FCGU took advantage of many uncontested 3-pointers to build a 40-32 lead at halftime. After making only 2-of-17 attempts 3-point range in the first quarter, the Eagles hit 6-of-11 in the second period to build its efficiency from 11.8 to 28.6 percent.

"When they went man we were able to drive a little bit more, and their choice was to leave the shooters and stop the drive and then we would pass it to the shooter and trust that they would knock it down," Smesko said. "Sometimes they chose not to leave the shooter, and we went and shot the high percentage shot.

"Akron is a very good team. They did have some matchup difficulties just with our team that they won't see with a lot of other teams because we don't play a lot of your traditional post-type players, and they have some good ones. It just put them in some tough matchups defensively."

Haley Laughter came alive in the second quarter, burying four 3-pointers and totaling 14 points — just four shy of her total. She closed the initial 12-3 run from beyond the arc and then capped a four-point Akron response with another.

However, it was in the final minute of the half that Laughter really seemed to relax. She pushed the Eagles to their largest lead at 37-27 with just under a minute left and dropped another 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to push the score to 40-29.

Akron guard Hannah Plybon answered the last basket and hit from beyond the arc, so that the Zips only faced an eight-point deficit at halftime. Plybon finished the game as the high scorer with 23 points, while her teammate Anita Brown tossed in 21.

"We try to spread people out and create as much space on the floor by having shooters in a lot of places where you really can't help," Smesko said. "Now at the beginning of this year we really haven't shot the ball that well so people have been jamming things up for our drivers a little more than normal. But now Haley has had a couple good games, so it might be hard to keep trying to help off her in the land.

"All of a sudden we get a little more space off that. A couple of these other kids are actually good shooters they've just started off slow. Other teams are daring them to prove it, and hopefully they prove it soon."

As the Eagles offense gained traction, its defense buckled down, fought through screens and limited Akron inside. FGCU forced three turnovers as the Zips got frustrated and bobbled passes, while committing none on the other end of the floor. By pushing Akron's offense out, FGCU only gave up two points in the paint. Meanwhile, the Eagles managed eight points inside.

Following the break, the Eagles clung to the strategy that had proved so effective in the second period, while Akron got even more deflated. FCGU rushed out on a 5-0 run to create a 13-point cushion. Akron never made a recovery, while the Eagles took care of the ball and bided their time for the remainder of the game.

FCGU's entire offense depended on its ability to attack the basket on the legs of Kaneisha Atwater and DyTiesha Dunson. Both Atwater and Dunson did an incredible job, but impacted the game in entirely different ways. Atwater provided a real scoring threat with 19 points, while Dunson perfected the drive-and-dish technique with a game-high nine assists.

The Eagles also benefitted from the impact of its bench. They scored 26 points off the bench, while the Zips only enjoyed a three-point contribution. Stephanie Haas and Katie Meador provided the spark FGCU needed, scoring 12 and seven points, respectively.

"It makes a big difference to have somebody come off the bench and be able to give you a spark," Smesko said. That's one of the reasons we switched our starting lineup to bring Steph Haas off the bench. She's a little bit of a scorer, and we wanted to be able to bring somebody off the bench and not feel like we lost anything offensively.

"We also brought Katie Meador off the bench today. So we just made a couple adjustments to the lineup so we could get a little bit of a scoring punch when we did need to sub."

Overall the Eagles appeared to be better in every way than a day earlier in its 69-57 loss to Ohio University. They rebounded better, shot better and cut their turnovers in half.

Moving forward Smesko hopes his team finally realizes what it's going to take to find success over a long and grueling season.

"I thought the mood of the team — we had the wrong mindset going into games not realizing what we had to do to win and what level we need to execute at to be successful in a game," Smesko said.

""From the morning shoot around to the game prep and even in warmups, I just sensed that we had a different mentality about how we were going to play today and the assistants really came and told me the same thing, that they could sense a different attitude with the team. Sometimes it's just having the desire to do it, and, unfortunately, you learned that the hard way."

INJURY UPDATE

FGCU senior Whitney Knight suffered a small fracture in her left foot on Oct. 23, and, as a result, has been absent from the first four games of the season.

Without the preseason Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year, the Eagles have managed to stay at .500. However, the 6-foot-3 guard's return would immediately impact their efficiency on both ends of the floor.

Knight has an X-ray scheduled for the upcoming week to get an idea of how much longer she'll have to watch from the sidelines, but has been showing a lot of progress rehabbing the injury.

"She's got an X-ray this week, and hopefully the doctor likes what he sees on the X-ray," FGCU head coach Karl Smesko said. "It's healing nicely. She still has to sit out a couple more weeks. You want to make sure the bone is fully healed. You don't want to risk any further injury. Everything is going really well. Hopefully, she'll be back in a few weeks."