FORT MYERS — Sharing the same facilities every day at a small school, the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s and women’s basketball teams also share a close bond.
So it’s not that the women weren’t happy when the men, whom they consider brothers, made a historic run in the NCAA tournament last month. It’s just that seeing the program achieve unprecedented success was bittersweet after the women’s own promising season ended in disappointment.
“It was hard for me to watch,” sophomore Whitney Knight said of the men’s trip to the Sweet 16. “I’m proud of them, but at the same time, we wish we were in that position.
“That was tough, but it makes us want to work harder to do what they did next year.”
One month ago, it was the women who were supposed to put FGCU’s athletic department on the map. The Eagles won 41 straight conference games, and were chugging toward a second straight NCAA tournament appearance, this time with hopes of winning a game in the Big Dance after losing in overtime in the tournament last year.
And they did so after losing Knight, a big contributor off the bench last year, for the season with a torn knee ligament in preseason drills, and freshman Taylor Gradinjan early in the season to an ACL injury.
When the women were upset in the Atlantic Sun Conference championship game, they missed out on the NCAA tournament. Deflated, the Eagles settled for a trip to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, where they lost at home in the first round.
Meanwhile, the men shocked the sports world by upsetting Georgetown in the first round of the tournament, then winning again to be come the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.
With the stinging losses in the past, the women’s team reflected on its season Wednesday before the year-end banquet at the Bell Tower Crown Plaza hotel.
“Up until the last two games, we had a great year,” junior Sarah Hansen said. “We did what a lot of people never expected. We grew a lot as a program and as a team.”
Still, sitting at home while the country celebrated the men’s feel-good story was tough.
Hansen, who broke the school’s career scoring record during the A-Sun tournament, was named the team’s Most Valuable Player at Wednesday’s banquet. She’ll be back next season along with 10 other returners, and they look forward to replicating the tournament run the men enjoyed.
“When everything comes together the right way, any team at our school can make a run like that,” said Hansen, who joined Knight and other teammates in Arlington, Texas, for the FGCU men’s Sweet 16 game against Florida. “To see (the men) make that run, now our school has been through it and we want to be the next ones to do that.”
The women say they’ve already put the season behind them. The Eagles are proud of what they accomplished — a 27-7 record, including an second straight undefeated A-Sun schedule and a 21-game winning streak during the year — but they’re ready for bigger things.
Expectations will be higher next season with so much talent returning. FGCU loses three seniors, including two starters, but adds back Knight and Gradinjan, plus Jenna Cobb, a transfer from Butler, becomes eligible.
On Tuesday, it had been five months since Knight’s injury. The sophomore was just cleared by doctors to run in March, and she won’t be ready to work out on the basketball court for another month.
Though the Eagles didn’t finish the year they way they wanted, they hope the disappointment only makes them stronger.
“We learned a lot from the way the season ended,” said freshman DyTiesha Dunson, who is in line for the starting point guard role next year. “It makes you work harder. We have a lot of motivation coming back next year.”