Former Westover star and reigning Herald Player of the Year DyTiesha Dunson, left, looks to make a move on Stetson’s Shanasa Sanders during a game earlier this year. Dunson, a freshman, is having a big year at Florida Gulf Coast University, which will find out tonight whether it has earned its second-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
SPECIAL TO THE HERALD
FORT MYERS, Fla. — DyTiesha Dunson will be either happy or excited tonight.
The Albany native and freshman point guard for Florida Gulf Coast University plans on joining her teammates at 7 p.m. to watch ESPN’s NCAA’s Women’s College Basketball Selection show.
The Lady Eagles, with a 27-6 record, will find out if they received the school’s second-ever invitation to play in the women’s Division I NCAA Tournament or accept an invitation to participate in the Women’s NIT. Dunson, the 2012 Albany Herald Player of the Year, said Sunday that she will be happy to play for whatever tournament accepts her squad.
“I’m looking forward to the selection show (on ESPN),” Dunson said. “I would like to see where we are playing at, what tournament we will play in.”
If the Lady Eagles land in the NCAA, Dunson will be a big part of why they got there.
FGCU coach Karl Smesko believes Dunson has been a big reason why the program suddenly finds itself in this position. Dunson was named the preseason Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year — and she earned it.
It’s been a tough season for Dunson, who had surgery in November to repair a torn meniscus and didn’t play in her first game until Dec. 19. She missed nine of the first 11 games, but since she’s been back, she’s averaging 3.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and nearly two assists a game. But she brings so much more to the court.
Smesko said without Dunson, the team didn’t have a sufficient amount of balance.
“We have a really good point guard, but she was playing too many minutes and another point guard was not available,” Smesko said. “Dunson handles the point flawlessly. She also gave us more versatility on offense, and she also allowed us to do more things on defense.”
When Dunson rejoined the lineup, the team responded on the court and in the win column. Over the next 22 games, turnovers were reduced to 11 per game and the Lady Eagles shot 35 percent from 3-point range.
In 2012, FGCU ran an offense that set a NCAA record for the most 3-pointers made by a team in a season (342) and 3s made per game (10.7). Without Dunson’s presence on the floor, the team struggled to a 6-5 mark and was averaging 15 turnovers a game, while its 3-point shooting percentage slipped to 28 percent.
Smesko said individual numbers could not explain the impact Dunson’s absence had on his team.
“Sometimes, people look at how many points a kid scores and thinks that is their contribution,” Smesko said. “DyTiesha does so many other things, and that’s why she has had such a big impact on our season. Anyone who saw us play knows how much better we became immediately when DyTiesha was on the floor full-time.”
The Lady Eagles seemingly were favorites to advance to the field of 64 schools competing for a national title after posting an 18-0 record in the Atlantic Sun conference. At one point during the season, FGCU received votes from the media as a Top 25 team in the nation.
Dunson said she was not surprised at the rapid rise.
“We work so hard in practice throughout the year, I knew that we only needed to learn how to click and become a team,” she said. “When I came back, it seemed like the team jelled together more. If we stick to our gameplan, we should always come out with a big victory.’’
On March 9, however, the team’s fortunes hit a major bump when they were upset by league rival Stetson University, 70-64, in the Atlantic Sun Tournament final. The loss snapped a 21-game win streak by FGCU (second only behind Baylor at the time) and awarded Stetson the league’s automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament. FGCU’s only recourse was to inform NCAA selection committee members of their impressive regular-season resumé and hope they would notice the upward trend by the Lady Eagles.
Smesko said Sunday that there aren’t 30 teams better than his squad. The team had eight new players, including seven freshmen, but it showed they made the adjustment to Division I competition successfully.
“Our strongest argument is that we are the youngest team and have been one of the most-injured,” Smesko said. “Once we were able to get a steady rotation of players we were able to win 21 of 22 games. We beat LSU and, in our conference, we won every game by double-digit margins. If we’re given an opportunity to be in the NCAAs, we can win. We’re trying to prepare for that (possibility).”
According to ESPN’s bracketology for the women’s tourney, Florida Gulf Coast is considered one of the teams which will get serious consideration for a bid — but it’s iffy whether that means a selection, commonly called the First Four out. Dunson believes the team has a 50-50 shot to get in, but she has not allowed herself to be distracted by the situation.
“When we returned back to school, yeah, I was kind of upset — a little hurt — but you have to keep it moving,” she said of the conference title game loss to Stetson. “You have to think positive about the situation because everything happens for a reason.
She added the team’s upperclassmen have helped the situation by keeping their composure although they clearly were hurt by the loss in Macon.
“They have tried to not openly discuss it,” she said. “They have put on a good face and been mature about it so the freshmen won’t feel devastated about the (tournament) outcome.”
“Going into the NCAAs would be great, but we still have a chance to do good things in the WNIT.”