Lipscomb didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, but the Bisons have become famous for foiling the ultimate bracket buster.
On Monday, hours after Florida Gulf Coast made history and became the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16, Lipscomb’s media relations staff fielded more than a dozen local and national interview requests.
Everyone wants to know how the Bisons, a 12-18 team that finished seventh in the Atlantic Sun Conference, beat high-flying FGCU. Twice.
Forward Martin Smith did a phone interview with Sports Illustrated. Coach Scott Sanderson spent a couple minutes on ESPN’s SportsCenter and also chatted with reporters from The New York Times, Sporting News and SI. Plus, there were shout-outs from Dick Vitale and Jim Rome, not to mention the Twitter buzz.
“You can’t buy that kind of advertisement,” Sanderson said. “People are talking about your university and people are going to look it up. I think the whole thing is good for our league. [But] I’d give back two wins if we were playing.”
Instead, the Bisons began offseason workouts on Monday.
They entered with more motivation thanks to FGCU’s unexpected success over the weekend in knocking off Georgetown and San Diego State to become the first A-Sun team to make the Sweet 16.
“You don’t see it coming,” Sanderson said. “But they are an athletic team and they do play with a little bit of a swagger about them. Now all of a sudden their confidence level is at an all-time high. Now they think they can beat anybody.”
Except for Lipscomb.
In a joyous locker room in Philadelphia on Sunday night, FGCU forward Eddie Murray told reporters, “They’re our Kryptonite. We’re just glad we don’t have to see [Lipscomb] in the Sweet 16.”
The Bisons can take solace in being the only team to defeat the Eagles twice this season. The first was an 87-78 overtime thriller in mid-January Fort Meyers, Fla. The second was an 84-74 decision a month later at Allen Arena.
Not that they want to.
“I feel like people are trying to find success in our season just by beating them twice,” Smith said. “In reality we went 12-18 and we lost in the first round of the conference tournament. We should just let them have their moment and just admire what they’re doing. Try to take that and do it next year.”
Nonetheless those two wins are being dissected and analyzed by the national pundits more than any two wins in Sanderson’s 14-year career.
If Sanderson hadn’t missed a call last week, his phone might not have been ringing off the hook on Monday. A Georgetown coach tried to reach him for pointers on beating the Eagles last week but he was out of town.
“When I got it was after the fact, too late,” Sanderson said.
As of late Monday afternoon, coaches from Florida — FGCU’s next opponent — hadn’t reached out to Sanderson. He knows Gators assistant John Pelphrey, a former Arkansas head coach, pretty well. Sanderson’s father, former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson, tried to recruit Pelphrey, who starred at Kentucky.
But Sanderson is not sure what he would tell the Gators if they called. He is hesitant to reveal trade secrets — at least to the media.
“We want them to go as far as they can go,” Sanderson said. “We’ve got to play them again next year. We think what we tried to do worked.”
What worked for Lipscomb were breakout individual performances, perimeter and transition defense, forced turnovers and effective shooting.
The Bisons rallied from double-digit deficits both times, including 14 points in the first meeting. That night, guard Deonte Alexander scored 27 of his career-high 29 points after halftime and led five Lipscomb players in double figures. In Round 2 in Nashville, Smith recorded his first career double-double with a career-high 30 points and 10 rebounds. Center Stephen Hurt, the A-Sun Freshman of the Year, also added 20 points and 10 rebounds.
“Nothing against them, but I felt like they really couldn’t guard us,” Smith said. “We were just all about them. We just had to stop them. … I just felt like it was a finesse team. They didn’t like getting physical and stuff. I felt like if we run them off screens and kind of beat them up inside we could just take over the game on the offensive end.”
The Bisons also unleashed two of their best shooting nights. In the first outing, they shot 54.5 percent from the field and made nine 3-pointers. The second time around, they made 45.2 percent of their shots.
Plus, the Eagles also struggled to do what they do best — make 3-pointers and rack up fastbreak points.
In two games against Lipscomb, FGCU made just 13-of-51 (25.4 percent). In two NCAA Tournament games, the Eagles are 13-of-33 (39.4 percent).
FGCU also had less success showing off “Dunk City.” Point guard Brett Comer had 19 assists — and eight turnovers — in the two games and set up Bernard Thompson and Chase Fieler on a couple of lobs.
“The first play of the game [at Lipscomb], Comer threw the ball up and Fieler just threw it down backwards,” Smith said. “Bernard just went up and got one. I didn’t know Bernard could get up like that. They’ve got a pretty athletic team. It is just amazing what they do in transition.”
Still, the Eagles mustered just eight points in transition in the two meetings. Conversely, they totaled 29 fast-break points against Georgetown and San Diego State. In the NCAA Tournament, FGCU committed just 13 turnovers both times.
Lipscomb forced the Eagles into 36 turnovers in two games as Sanderson found success in both his man-to-man defense and a 3-2 zone.
All those ingredients helped Lipscomb pull off a sweep no one else can brag about.
“We said all year long with our team that we were good enough to beat anybody in our league,” Sanderson said. “But we were inconsistent enough to get beat by anybody. That comes with having only six years of experience on your basketball team. With everybody coming back [except Alexander] … and all our new kids, we feel like we should move right back up there where we belong — up top.”