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Ranked for the first time, FGCU women now facing new challenge

February 17, 2015
By TIM REYNOLDS - AP Basketball Writer , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

FORT MYERS (AP) - Practice at Florida Gulf Coast was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, though most players were on the floor long before that time.

That's customary for the Eagles.

And being ranked didn't change that.

It took a long time for Florida Gulf Coast's women to make their debut in the Top 25, which finally happened when the Eagles were slotted at No. 22 this week. So now, the next challenge - staying on that list of the nation's elite - awaits, and they know this is no time for a slip-up.

"We can't get satisfied with where we're at," guard Stephanie Haas said. "We need to keep working. We've had a bulls-eye on our back for a number of years in the conference. FGCU has always been the team everyone wants to beat, and we're aware that they all would like to beat a Top 25 team."

It's probably a safe assumption that opponents will be more amped to play FGCU going forward.

Then again, that usually hasn't been much of a deterrent for the Eagles in Atlantic Sun Conference play.

With a 23-2 record, unbeaten in the A-Sun and riding an 18-game winning streak, they're in the drivers' seat for the top seed and home-court advantage for the conference tournament - with the winner there getting an automatic bid into the NCAA field.

And while FGCU's RPI right now seems high enough that it would merit serious at-large consideration, the Eagles would prefer leaving nothing to chance.

"Being a nationally ranked team does supply a little more motivation for opponents," FGCU coach Karl Smesko said. "We already had to be ready for a team's excellent effort. Now it may even be their best effort. It forces you to be better, where you have to be prepared every game and understand that you're going to have to play well."

That hasn't seemed to be an issue.

The Eagles have the nation's fifth-longest winning streak behind only Princeton, Baylor, Connec-ticut and Chattanooga en-tering Tuesday, have been as high as No. 13 in the RPI and are 63-1 in league regular-season play over the last four seasons.

"The next challenge," Smesko said, "is to stay in the rankings."

FGCU - which is still best-known for the Sweet 16 run its men's basketball team had on the way to the "Dunk City" moniker in the 2013 NCAA Tournament - is the A-Sun's first women's representative in the Top 25 since Florida International during the 1997-98 season, conference officials said.

The Eagles have seven wins this season against teams that were in the top-100 of the RPI at the time, rank No. 3 nationally in 3-pointers made per game, are fifth-best among Division I teams at taking care of the basketball and have the 10th-best scoring margin in the country entering Tues-day's games.

People are taking notice. Haas got kudos from a bus driver on campus Tuesday. Whitney Knight, the team's leading scorer, heard congratulatory words from professors who never talked basketball - or anything else, for that matter - with her before. Smesko re-ceived messages from plenty of former players who wanted to share in the excitement.

"It's a pretty big deal," Knight said. "You never realize how cool or exciting it is until you're actually in that position. It's a great achievement. And it's big for us because we've been good over the years, but just to finally get that Top 25 spot is great recognition and fulfilling as well."

There's only four games left in the regular season: At Kennesaw State on Thurs-day, at USC Upstate on Saturday, at North Florida on Feb. 25 and then back home against Jacksonville on Feb. 28.

After that, it's the conference tourney and potentially a chance to host the league's title game on March 15.

"At the beginning of the year this year, Coach made it known that we have goals," guard Kaneisha Atwater said. "We have goals and one of those goals was to be one of the top teams in the country."

 
 
 

 

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