The Eagles' Cinderella season is over, but FGCU didn't do down easy.
Florida Gulf Coast went through a dry spell in the second half in which it couldn't get a clutch basket and Florida held off the Eagles' attempt at yet another upset bid in the South Region semfinals with a 62-50 victory.
The No. 3 seed Gators (29-7) will face No. 2 seed Michigan (29-7) for the regional title on Sunday. The Wolverines knocked off No. 1 seed Kansas, 87-85 in overtime earlier Friday night.
"I tried to recruit Shaq and Bill Russell at halftime," joked FGCU coach Andy Enfield. "But they were busy."
He could have used them. The second half turned into a struggle for the Eagles after an amazing start.
"We planned to win a couple of games in the tournament, as many as we could ... (but) it was unbelievable to see the excitement and the passion of not only our community on the local level but nationally," Enfield said.
Florida Gulf Coast (26-11) missed all but one of its first five shots in the second half as Florida increased a four-point halftime lead to 37-26 at 18:30. Eric McKnight finally broke the scoreless stretch with a dunk at 17:07.
Sherwood Brown, who finished with 14 points for the Eagles, got a layup that made it a seven-point game. Then came a stretch in which neither team could do much offensively. The Gators actually went through a funk that lasted over six minutes and opened the door for the Eagles to retake control of the game.
But Florida's defense didn't let it down the same way the offense was and UF scratched a few points to keep a 10-point cushion midway through the second half.
Mike Rosario, who had three of Florida's opening field goals in the second half and finished with 15, broke the scoreless stretch.
"We found and manufactured different ways to score," UF coach Billy Donovan said of his team's offensive struggles.
Florida Gulf Coast had several chances to tighten the game even more but missed clutch shots. At the same time, UF's Scottie Wilbekin, who finished with 13 points, made four straight foul shots to make Florida lead 54-45 with less than three minutes to play.
Will Yeguete and Wilbekin both hit a foul shot and it was 57-45 with 1:20 remaining and the clock was finally running out on the Eagles' dream season.
"There are a lot of big things coming to FCGU," promised Brown. "And we can't wait to see those."
The Gators came into the night with five straight wins in the Sweet Sixteen. The last time UF lost a game on this level was to Gonzaga in 1999 in Phoenix.
Florida Gulf Coast, the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet Sixteen, was the obvious fan favorite from the second they ran onto the court - to a loud roar from the Cowboys Stadium crowd. When the Gators came out for the game start, they were roundly booed.
The Eagles seemed to get energy from the greeting, exploding to huge early leads. It was 15-4 with just under 14 minutes to go in the first half. Florida Gulf Coast led 21-11 when Rosario hit a 3-pointer for the Gators.
"We weren't able to score in the first half so we had make sure we were doing a good job guarding," Yeguete said.
FGCU came back with three foul shots from Christophe Varidel to go up 24-14 at the 5:21 mark. Then Florida, which hit just four of its first 20 shots, got a run of its own.
Michael Frazier made a pair of 3-pointers and Casey Prather had a put-back to cut the margin to 24-22. Wilbekin's basket tied the game at 24 with 2:45 left and about a minute later Rosario hit another three to give UF a 27-24 lead.
Boynton followed with a bucket and a foul shot and the Gators led 30-24 after a 16-0 run. Brown got a layup to stop a scoreless run of almost five minutes for FGCU and it was 30-26 at the half.
While the run saved Florida from getting blown out, the half left FGCU's confidence soaring and the Gators looking at little baffled at how the opening 20 minutes went.
UF got 13 of its 30 points and five of its 16 rebounds from its bench in the first half. Without those contributions, the Gators wouldn't have been close. The Eagles also surprised UF with its ability to get into the paint with 12 points inside. FGCU had its own first half issues with 12 turnovers that led to 11 Florida points and took just 16 shots in the first half, making nine.
"I was shocked at some of the bad turnovers we had," Enfield said.
The Gators, on the other hand, had 10 offensive rebounds in the half, which was huge in helping UF stay alive.
"I think we learned a lot here," Eagles guard Brett Comer said. "I think we learned we can do anything if you set your mind to it."