FGCU’s women’s basketball team shot early, shot fast, and shot often to dispatch an SEC opponent with a 59-48 win over Kentucky at Alico Arena on Sunday afternoon.
The win was the Eagles’ 24th win against a Power 5 conference foe. It makes the Eagles 3-0 all-time against the Wildcats, who were already reeling from a loss to Austin Peay in their previous game and lacking their leading guard Maddie Scherr, who has been out with an ankle injury.
“This is a new team that we have this year with a lot of new players,” FGCU coach Karl Smesko said. “It definitely feels good to get a win against a Power 5 team this year. They were a little shorthanded and we didn’t finish the game very strong, so there are going to be some things to work on, but there were definitely some really good bright spots, especially how we started the second half.”
Dolly Cairns led the Eagles (3-1) with 16 points and 6 assists.
“I had a rough shooting night from 3, but I just tried to run our actions well and just really stick to how we play basketball, and when I’m open, take the shot,” Cairns said.
The Eagles opened by winning the first possession. Cairns sent a quick inbound to Uju Ezeudu (10 points, 5 rebounds), who immediately made a short-range jumper to give the Eagles the lead.
The defense went to work on the ensuing possession, covering the perimeter so tightly that the Wildcats (2-2) suffered a shot clock violation. The Eagles continued to combine inlet passes to Ezeudu and outlet passes to the shooters. Maddie Antenucci (13 points, 5 rebounds) made a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it a 7-0 lead, forcing Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy to call time out.
Coming out of the time out, Ezeudu made a quick pass to Ajulu Thatha, who was below the rim and made the shot jumper. Thatha returned the favor on the next possession, feeding it to Ezeudu for a perimeter jumper of her own and an 11-0 lead.
“I think coming here, Coach Smesko has really helped me add to my game a lot with getting a shot and learning more about post defense,” Ezeudu said.
The offensive woes continued when on a scramble for a loose ball, Saniah Tyler hurt her wrist while losing the ball in a backcourt violation. She would, however, return to the game.
The Wildcats scored their first points nearly halfway through the first half when Amiya Jenkins (18 points) made a layup in the paint. That started a short run for Kentucky, who got the score to 11-5 with Jenkins making a wide-open 3. But the lead quickly went back to nine when Cairns was fouled as she successfully made a layup from the left side and made the ensuing free throw.
“I’m at a loss for the slow start,” Elzy said. “I thought we were very locked in today in shootaround, in pregame. So I thought we were mentally focused and ready. That didn’t show, so we’ll go back and look at some different variables there.”
Cassidy Rowe committed a travel, returning the ball to the Eagles which Antenucci turned into a layup. Then Ezeudu, with her back to the rim and with a defender on her, turned around on her pivot foot and made a jumper from the side of the key, turning it into an 18-8 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Eagles continued to maintain a double-digit lead for nearly all of the second quarter. Antenucci made a 3-pointer and nearly repeated the deed on the next possession, but the shot rimmed out. Kentucky missed 3 treys in the period, though, preventing them from taking advantage of any FGCU misses to gain ground. Brooklynn Miles missed one at the buzzer, leaving the score 30-19 FGCU at the half.
The offensive surge and defensive stops continued into the third quarter, with Kentucky missing shots and the Eagles making them. FGCU finished the period on a 9-0 run, ending with a thunderous block by Ezeudu of a layup that technically didn’t count because it came right after the buzzer.
The Eagles’ offense went cold in the fourth, scoring only 4 points. At the same time, Kentucky found life, opening with a 13-0 run. Tyler hit a 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer. Then Jenkins intercepted a Kierra Adams pass and scored a fast-break layup. A lost ball by Cairns gave up 2 more points as Eniya Russell turned it into a jumper. Ajae Petty (15 points, 13 rebounds) scored a second-chance layup, leading Smesko to call time out.
“We were trying to get more executed actions on offense and our pace offensively wasn’t very good and we weren’t working together really well; there was a lot of individual play,” Smesko said. “The other thing is obviously they were really trying to pound it in the post, so we were trying to help as much as we could in there.”
Kentucky scored once more to get the game to within 11, but an Ajulu Thatha rebound got the ball to an open Sofia Persson (12 points), whose fast-break layup ended the Wildcats’ run. The Eagles had a pair of offensive fouls down the stretch, but it was too late for Kentucky.
The schedule is about to get really busy for the Eagles as they will seek to defend their title in the Gulf Coast Showcase at Hertz Arena, which runs from Friday to Sunday.
“Preparation is very important to us, and obviously whenever you get in these tournaments where you play back-to-back-to-back, it’s hard to have a very detailed game plan because you have one shootaround and walkthrough and then you play the game,” Smesko said. “We just go in and prepare for the first team and try to be as prepared as we can for the first team because you don’t even know for sure who you’re going to be playing in the second game.”