Florida Gulf Coast Eagles guard Bernard Thompson (2), a Rockdale grad, splits San Diego State Aztecs guard Chase Tapley (22) and guard Jamaal Franklin (21) during the first half of the third round of the NCAA basketball tournament at Wells Fargo Center on March 24, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)
PHILADELPHIA -- Florida Gulf Coast doesn't have any high school All-Americans on its squad. It doesn't have an experienced head coach, and with only one senior starter, there isn't a wealth of experience on the roster either.
What the team does have is a berth in the Sweet 16 and a place in NCAA Tournament history.
Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to advance past the first weekend of March Madness, using a 17-0 second-half run to blow past San Diego State in a 81-71 win at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday.
"It's just amazing," Eagles sophomore forward Bernard Thompson, a Rockdale grad, said at the media podium after scoring a game-high 23 points. "I really can't describe the feeling right now. It's an emotional win for us. ... We're just playing high-intensity basketball, trying to prove that we're just as good as any high-major team."
The Eagles (26-10) will play third-seeded Florida on Friday in the South Regional semifinals in Arlington, Texas.
After an entertaining first 30 minutes that saw 10 ties and nine lead changes, Florida Gulf Coast produced a run that nobody in the building saw coming -- except maybe the Eagles' bench.
Seventh-seeded San Diego State (23-11) pulled within two points on a Xavier Thames bucket with 11:33 remaining, but the Aztecs went the next 7:33 without putting the ball through the bucket as the Eagles took control.
"You miss two or three shots in a row and give them two or three straight baskets and then the feel, the flavor, the whole way you approach it -- if you're not careful -- can cause you to not be quite as thoughtful in how you play," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "They play with a swagger, and they have a right to do that. You can have that look and feel, but you have to compete and play to earn your spurs, and they've done that."
How Florida Gulf Coast managed to fly under the national radar for so long is a bit of a mystery. A win over Miami (Fla.) in the second game of the season showed that the Eagles were capable of playing with the best teams in the country, though winning two games in March is much different than winning one in November.
Senior guard Sherwood Brown had 17 points and eight rebounds for the Eagles, one of five Florida Gulf Coast players who scored in double figures.
Eagles point guard Brett Comer is establishing himself as one of the nation's top floor generals. The 6-foot-3 sophomore followed up a 10-assist, two-turnover performance against Georgetown on Friday with a 10-point, 14-assist, three-turnover effort Sunday. That set a career mark for assists against one of the toughest defenses in the country, as the up-tempo Florida Gulf Coast attack overpowered the Aztecs.
"We want to push the ball down the court, and we want to attack, attack, attack," Comer said. "We're going to be in full attack mode the whole entire game. We make a lot of the decisions, and everybody puts the ball in the basket, and it really helps us be able to control the game."
The Eagles became only the second team all season to score 80 points against the Aztecs, joining UNLV, which had 85 points on Jan. 16.
Comer isn't the only Eagle who's earned himself a reputation this weekend. Chase Fieler, a 6-8 junior forward, has had a number of highlight-reel dunks that have earned the program the moniker "Dunk City" on social media. Fieler finished with 11 points, the same total as sophomore guard Christophe Varidel.
Then there's Brown, a former walk-on who's emerged as the leader of the Eagles as their only graduating player in the starting lineup. A 6-foot-4 guard, Brown scored eight of his 17 during the key run. Overall, he shot 6-for-8 from the floor and added eight rebounds in 26 minutes.
A sellout crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, normally the home of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, represented far more fans than the 4,500 that can fit into Florida Gulf Coast's Alico Arena. By the time the 17-0 run was over, most of the nearly 20,000 in attendance were on their feet and screaming for the Eagles.
"The crowd was great tonight," Fieler said. "We were feeding off of them, they were going crazy. By the end of the game, they were cheering almost too loud. We couldn't call out our plays. We couldn't call out anything."
Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State's do-everything junior guard, finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and four steals. Chase Tapley added 17 points, James Rahon 12 and DeShawn Stephens 10 for the Aztecs.
Florida Gulf Coast's advancement was one of the big early storylines of the tournament, as the Eagles knocked off second-seeded Georgetown on Friday in just their second year as a full Division I member. Now the Eagles are sure to be one of the biggest stories of the year, no matter how much further coach Andy Enfield's squad can go.
"I haven't cried yet," Enfield said when asked if he had a tear in his eye at the end of the game. "I might cry tomorrow.
"No tears yet, but maybe in the future."
The Fort Myers school moved up from Division II to the Atlantic Sun Conference back in 2007, then went through a four-year transition period before gaining postseason eligibility.
NOTES: Florida Gulf Coast became the first school from the Atlantic Sun to reach the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. ... The Eagles are the only undefeated school in NCAA Tournament history (2-0). ... The Eagles had led 21 consecutive games at the half before Sunday. ... Franklin, a 6-foot-5 junior, is one of two players nationally to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.