DeLand, FL — As it grew closer to game time, the Edmunds Center in DeLand, Florida filled up with fans decked out in Hatters apparel. The home team's optimistic cheers may have helped No. 1 seed Stetson University (26-6) for most of the game, but it didn’t stop Florida Gulf Coast University (No. 2 seed, 26-8) from clinching the ASun Championship title in the final minutes.
“I can’t even remember the last minute, I was so emotional, but I know it was good,” said FGCU junior China Dow, who scored a career-high 31-points in Sunday’s game.
The odds were not in the Eagle’s favor after Stetson walked away with the ASUN regular-season crown after a heartbreaking 67-64 loss in overtime at Alico Arena on Feb. 25. This time, the teams faced each other again, with the Hatter’s having home-court advantage and a bigger title at stake.
Both teams were hungry for the championship title, along with the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, and it showed.
Florida native Brianti Saunders was hot in the first quarter, adding 13 points to the board for Stetson. Dow contributed seven of FGCU’s 20 points, knotting it up to 20-20 as the first quarter wrapped up.
The rivals were tied up again in the second quarter, 32-32. Coming off the bench, Stetson’s Brittney Chamber’s fired off three triples, pulling the Hatter’s ahead to a 38-34 lead at half-time.
Florida Gulf Coast was trailing by four in the third quarter but suffered an even bigger setback when their star point guard Jordin Alexander dislocated her shoulder and was summoned to sit out the remainder of the period.
This absence allowed Stetson to gain a commanding lead, thanks to a three-pointer by Chambers and a basket by senior McKenna Beach. However, Dow pulled the weight for the Eagles, as they ended the quarter down 54-51.
Alexander would not only return in the final stanza, but she was hot off the bench, scoring six points within the first two and a half minutes.
“When I got back in, the adrenaline rush helped with the pain. Once we kind of got that momentum going we had those big shots and those defensive stops that we were missing earlier,” the senior Indiana native said.
Saunder’s and Sarah Sagerer were both strong for the Hatter’s, tying the game at 64-64 with 3:25 left on the clock. Both teams gave it all they had, as they went back and forth down to the final minutes. After Dow’s three-pointer silenced the crowd, the Eagles continued to soar.
“I think it was all hype from the get-go. When I made my first shot, it hyped me up. I gained the confidence and I just kept going. I took what was open… just let it flow. When Jordin came back in she gave us a little spark,” said Dow.
With their biggest lead of the game, FGCU began to rejoice, knowing they had clinched the 2017 ASun Championship women’s basketball title with just minutes left until the final buzzer. The Eagles stormed the court, with tears of joy streaming down their faces, as the scoreboard read, 77-70.
“This was a great college basketball game in a great environment, we just kept fighting. Then, in the fourth quarter, we just hit one little hot streak. It’s a team effort," stated the Eagles head coach Karl Smesko.
"A double-digit lead is nice, but it didn’t change anything. I don’t think Stetson played poorly, they played well. We just had people make big shots the last few minutes,” concluded Smesko.
Stetson's Coach Lynn Bria agreed. “It came down to the middle of the fourth quarter… the last few plays. China Dow is hard to guard, she’s a very strong player,” she said.
This loss is not the end of the road for Stetson; they’re still staying positive as they head into the women’s NIT.
“We have to focus on what we do best, come out harder and work harder,” said Chambers.
“I loved my time here, I played hard. I hate the way it ended, but I’m happy with my time here. I think we’re a great team. This game is in the past. We have to use it as fuel for the next game we have,” Hatters' senior guard Saunders said.
FGCU, on the other hand, will be competing in the NCAA tournament. The team only kept five players from last year and added nine new to the roster, but that didn’t stop them from making it into the finals for the sixth straight season.
“There was no doubt that we could win this title- trust in each other, get to know each other, come to practice and do our best,” said Eagles junior Rosemarie Julien.
“We were doubted from the start, I think it’ll be fun to see what we can do next,” Dow added.