ARLINGTON, Texas — In three short days last week, Florida Gulf Coast University transformed into Dunk City, a moniker earned by the high-flying men's basketball team.
The Eagles threw down a variety of alley-oops and slam dunks in their first two NCAA tournament games. Flying above the rim drew national attention, but those transition dunks started on the other end.
"Without defense, we would have nothing to build our offense off," sophomore forward Eric McKnight said. "We build our energy off defense. Without it, we wouldn't be able to create for our offense."
FGCU (26-10) likes to run. In Friday night's South Regional semifinal game against Florida (28-7), the Eagles want to get plenty of fast-break points against the Gators' stingy defense. To do so, they'll have to get defensive stops first.
The Eagles have freedom from coach Andy Enfield to push the ball up-court as fast as possible. Their freewheeling style is one of the reasons basketball fans have fallen in love with FGCU — aside from the dunks.
Many of the alley-oops that have been shown on tournament highlight reels came off turnovers. The Eagles forced 31 turnovers in their first two tournament games, wins over Georgetown and San Diego State, and 18 of those were steals.
"Defense is what helps us get out in transition," senior forward Eddie Murray said. "We get stops, we get steals and we're able to run. A lot of times we're playing against bigger guys, but we're quicker. We're able to get down court and get those lobs, those dunks. It all starts with defense."
To outrun your opponent, you have to outscore them. That means locking down on defense. FGCU has been able to put together big runs in the tournament thanks to holding their opponent scoreless for lengthy stretches of time.
Against Georgetown, it was a 21-2 run over five minutes. The Eagles then went on a 17-0 run against San Diego State, holding the Aztecs without a point for 7 minutes, 33 seconds.
Both runs featured timely 3-pointers and crowd-exciting dunks that built electricity and momentum for underdog FGCU. But the biggest plays might have come on the other end of the court.
"We contested every shot, we blocked a lot of shots, we made them miss a lot of shots," sophomore point guard Brett Comer said of the run against San Diego State. "It made us able to get the ball in our hands and push it down the floor and find easy baskets.
"That's our style of play. Everyone talks about our offense and how fun we are to watch and ‘Dunk City', but it really comes from our defense and getting stops and pushing the ball back down the court."
In Florida, the Eagles face their biggest challenge yet. FGCU played well defensively in its first two tournament games, but Georgetown and San Diego State lacked the Gators' firepower.
The Aztecs were 118th in the nation in points per game, while Georgetown was 245th in scoring out of 347 Division I teams. Florida is 61st in the country in scoring and 10th in field goal percentage.
"We have to guard the 3-point line and not give up layups," said sophomore Bernard Thompson, the Atlantic Sun Defensive Player of the Year who had five steals against San Diego State. "We have to make them drive, make them pass over our big men."
But are the Gators the best offensive team FGCU has seen this postseason?
"I don't know," Thompson said. "We haven't played them yet."