MACON, Ga. — The Florida Gulf Coast University women’s basketball team needed to make a statement early in the Atlantic Sun semifinals. Not just after a sluggish start to the tournament, but to erase the upset hopes of the A-Sun team that has played the Eagles the toughest.
FGCU sent its message loud and clear — the defending champs won’t settle for anything less than a repeat.
The Eagles led North Florida by as many as 22 points in the first half before coasting to a 73-44 victory Friday in the A-Sun semifinals at Mercer University. FGCU plays at 5:30 p.m today in the conference championship game, where the winner earns an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
“We played an excellent first half,” FGCU coach Karl Smesko said. “The first half was exactly what we needed because we knew North Florida played us tough both games. It was very important to get off to a good start because we know they had confidence they can beat us.”
FGCU (27-5, 20-0) plowed through A-Sun opponents this season, winning all 18 conference games by an average of 25.7 points. However, the Eagles beat North Florida (12-19, 8-12) by just 11 and 16 points in the regular season, their closest conference contests.
There was little doubt the Eagles would advance to the conference finals after they shot 56 percent in the first half Friday, including eight 3-pointers.
Much like the quarterfinals, Joyce Iamstrong led the offensive explosion. The senior guard scored 19 points before halftime by hitting all eight of her field goal attempts.
Iamstrong finished with 22 points, one shy of the career high she set in the quarterfinals. Before the A-Sun tournament, she had just two 20-point games in two years at FGCU.
“I’m just trying to take what’s open,” Iamstrong said. “I have confidence. I felt like I was wide open.”
Her 9-for-9 shooting performance was just off the tournament record for shooting, which is 10-for-10 set more than 20 years ago. While Iamstrong might not have expected such a hot performance, someone in her family did.
After the quarterfinals, Iamstrong said she had a phone conversation with her older brother, Jonathan Holloway, in which he told her he had a premonition she would be perfect from the field.
“I prayed on it and it came,” Iamstrong said, “so I’m thanking God for this one.”
As Iamstrong puts on a show for the rest of the conference, other coaches are taking notice of the player who was left off the A-Sun first and second all-conference teams.
“She’s on a mission,” North Florida coach Mary Tappmeyer said. “She struggled early in their system, but she put in a lot of work in the summer and she’s reaping the rewards. She’s out to prove she belongs on the floor.
“She’s an ‘I’ll show you’ kind of kid. You’ve got to have a few of those in your program.”
Iamstrong wasn’t the only hot Eagle. FGCU shot 12-of-29 from 3-point range, setting a conference tournament record for 3s in a game. In last year’s semifinals and finals, the Eagles tied the previous mark of 11 3s.
Jaime Gluesing scored 13 points and hit three 3s for FGCU. Senior point guard Brittany Kennedy added 12 points, eight assists, three steals and had just one turnover.
The semifinal victory was the Eagle’s 21st in a row dating back to December and 41st straight conference win. FGCU won the conference tournament last season in its first year of postseason eligibility following a four-year preliminary period after moving to Division I.
“It’s great to make it to the next step, but we’re not done yet,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got a big game (Saturday) so we have to get focused and make sure we’re ready. I want to go out with a bang, and I know the team does, too. We’ve got business still to handle.”
p>Women’s championship glance
Who: No. 1 FGCU (27-5, 20-0) vs. No. 2 Stetson (22-8, 16-4)
What: Atlantic Sun tournament women’s championship game
When: Today, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Hawkins Arena, Mercer University (Macon, Ga.)
TV/radio: Comcast Sports Southeast, ESPN3.com, fgcuathletics.com
What’s at stake: Automatic berth in NCAA tournament
Regular season: The Eagles swept Stetson (74-55 at home and 72-55 on the road).
Key matchup: FGCU’s Sarah Hansen (2013 A-Sun Player of the Year, 5-foot-10 guard averaging 16.9 points a game) vs. Victoria McGowan (2012 A-Sun Player of the Year, 5-foot-4 guard averaging 16.2 points).
Pos. Ht. Yr. Name PPG RPG FG%
G 5-4 Sr. Victoria McGowan 16.2 6.7 47.7
G 5-7 So. Jama Sharp 9.0 3.9 45.8
G 5-7 Sr. Shanasa Sanders 13.9 6.5 42.9
F 6-0 Sr. Ashley Dennis 3.0 1.0 33.0
F 6-0 Jr. Sasha Sims 11.7 3.9 47.0
Pos. Ht. Yr. Name PPG RPG FG%
PG 5-7 Sr. Brittany Kennedy 10.0 5.0 49.5
G 5-8 Fr. DyTiesha Dunson 3.4 2.3 28.4
G 5-10 Fr. Jaime Gluesing 7.0 2.7 47.5
G 5-9 Sr. Joyce Iamstrong 11.1 4.0 43.0
F 5-10 Jr. Sarah Hansen 16.9 7.5 49.3