FORT MYERS, Fla. — With more than 600 Division 1 college basketball programs in the nation, if you count men's and women's, the Florida Gulf Coast women's fan base may be one of the more unusual.
Classes at FGCU started in 1997, and last year, the university celebrated 25 years of on-campus education.
As the Eagles won their 30th game on Sunday, a 66-48 victory over Stetson in the ASUN quarterfinals at Alico Arena, a glance at their fan base revealed plenty of supporters who are 55 or older.
Just from a casual conversation over the music during the time-outs, a common theme emerged from the fans I spoke with. They love basketball but moved here from other hotbeds — such as Big Ten schools in the Midwest or the Atlantic Coast Conference along the east coast. As part of their growth in Southwest Florida, many told me they adopted the FGCU women's program as the Eagles have kept growing... and winning.
FGCU sits at 30-3 heading into Wednesday night's ASUN semifinal against Austin Peay. The Eagles have completed a full reload after losing Kjerstan Bell, and her 23 points per game, as the eleventh pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft.
"I want to end (the season) on the most positive note possible for that and then, after that, we're going to have to find another group of players that are interested in being part of a. great team, interested in sharing the ball and play our style," said Karl Smesko, now in his 21st year at FGCU women's head basketball coach. "Live in a great area and go to FGCU."
Smesko, the only head coach in program history, won his 640th game on Sunday, lifting his career record to 640-131, with his 83% winning percentage only behind active Division I coaches Geno Auriemma of Connecticut and LSU's Kim Mulkey.
As the Eagles are ranked 24th, they could be the toughest team in women's basketball for about 700 miles, as South Carolina is top-ranked. The Eagles have only lost three games this season, to traditional powers Stanford and Duke before an overtime road loss at Liberty.
Smesko's work to reshape a roster each year is paying off, yet again. In Sunday's win over Stetson, graduate student Sha Carter poured in 20 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. Carter enjoyed a storied career at Walsh College in Ohio.
"I did learn, though, that I needed to learn how to shoot immediately," Carter said after the game. "I chose (FGCU) and I don't regret it at all. The weather is stellar. That's definitely a plus."
Tishara Morehouse runs the offense. A fifth-year guard out of Milwaukee, Morehouse played junior college in Nebraska before reaching her final destination in Southwest Florida.
"First of. all, it's Florida so I love the weather here," said Morehouse. "But the playing style fits me very well and fast and it's on pace. All the boxes were checked."
That pace is what also makes an Eagles' home game very exciting. FGCU has led the nation in offensive efficiency and also three-pointers made per game at more than 12. Even in Sunday's win over Stetson where the offense did struggle at times, the Eagles still poured in 11 threes.
Add in that maturity from a roster full of fifth-year seniors and graduate transfers. Perhaps Carter underscored that the most in the seconds after the final buzzer. Worn out and weary from battling for 13 rebounds, Carter smiled at a pack of young girls in the stands, signing miniature basketballs and posters for the new fans. Growing the game.
"Interacting with them is huge," said Carter. "It's a big thing for them just to see us smile and laugh and not just have a good time but to be strong, independent women in sports and we're just talking to them. Let them know that we're soft and nice as well.
"It's a good relationship to build."