For a half, it all seemed possible for the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles.
Seeded 16th in the East Regional, the Eagles were pushing top-seeded North Carolina on Thursday in their NCAA Tournament opener. The Tar Heels led by a point at halftime, and the thousands in light blue who filled PNC Arena appeared edgy and grudgingly impressed by the spunk and scrappiness of the underdogs from the Atlantic Sun Conference.
The mood in the FGCU locker room, sophomore guard Christian Terrell said, was one of confidence, one of belief.
“We were excited but we also knew we were going to match their intensity and energy in the second half,” Terrell said.
Ah, the rub. NCAA underdogs can play on adrenaline for a half against No. 1 seeds but no 16th seed has yet to pull off the NCAA stunner. That now includes Florida Gulf Coast, which lost 83-67 to the Tar Heels.
FGCU coach Joe Dooley talked about a “boneheaded start” to the second half and Terrell, who led the Eagles with 15 points, said the Tar Heels “seemed to be everywhere on the court.”
“Blocking shots, controlling the paint, everywhere,” Terrell said.
UNC’s Brice Johnson blocked eight shots, six in the second half. The Tar Heels had 10 as a team as the Eagles, 60 percent shooters in the first half, missed 12 of their first 14 shots in the second half shooting 30.3 percent.
FGCU’s Antravious Simmons isn’t a small guy. The sophomore is a space-eater at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, and finished with 14 points and eight boards.
But Simmons watched UNC start Kennedy Meeks in the middle, then send in Isaiah Hicks and Joel James to help the ever-present Johnson.
“They’re some big, big, athletic dudes,” Simmons said. “They’re really good and they keep coming in, keep coming at you.”
Terrell played at Providence High in Jacksonville, Fla., where a teammate was Duke’s Grayson Allen. The two texted the past few days as the Eagles, who blistered Fairleigh Dickson 96-65 Tuesday in a “First Four” play-in game, prepared for the Heels.
“He said to keep them from getting offensive rebounds and keep them out of transition and we’d have a chance to win,” Terrell said.
The Tar Heels had six offensive rebounds in the opening half and seven fast-break points. FGCU had a 21-14 overall edge on the boards in the half as Meeks and Hicks failed to get a rebound.
“We had our defense going, we were getting rebounds, sharing the ball, scoring multiple ways,” senior guard Julian DeBose said. “It was all you could ask for, coming out against a No. 1 seed.”
But in the second half, the Eagles began to rush things offensively. The shots stopped falling and every pass was contested.
“We were playing team ball in the first half but in the second half we were trying to play hero ball and were selfish,” Terrell said.
By game’s end, the UNC fans were festive again. Basketball normalcy had returned. And the Eagles left PNC Arena believing they may have been beaten by an eventual national champion.
“They have the tools to do that,” Terrell said. “They have the guard play. They have the rebounding and they’re good in transition.
“That’s what they thrive on. If they keep it going, they could win it.”