MISSOULA — Sophia Stiles and her Florida Gulf Coast women's basketball team made a strong statement in the first round of the NCAA tourney Saturday afternoon.
Stiles, a former Montana Lady Griz standout who played her high school basketball in Malta, collected four points, four steals and two assists in helping 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast to a 74-63 win over fifth-seeded Washington State in Villanova, Pennsylvania.
Stiles and her team will battle the Villanova Wildcats (29-6) on their home court Monday at 5 p.m. Mountain (ESPNU). A spot in the Sweet 16 will be on the line.
Stiles started for the Eagles despite a fractured cheekbone injury she suffered last week. She wore an awkward facemask but still made her presence felt.
"It was a really fun game to play on a big stage," Stiles told 406mtsports.com. "My teammates were absolutely amazing and our coaches get us so prepared for every game.
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"We are getting ready for our game on Monday now and are excited for what we can do. This team is special."
Florida Gulf Coast improved to 33-3 with the win. The Eagles have won 15 straight games.
Stiles, a graduate guard, was MVP of the Lady Griz in 2021-22 but left last spring to give Florida Gulf Coast a try. She had started every game for the Eagles this season up until last weekend when she missed the Atlantic Sun Conference tourney final with her injury.
The loss was a tough pill to swallow for Washington State. The Cougars, who have never won an NCAA tourney game, earned their first Pac-12 tourney title last weekend.
Sha Carter led Florida Gulf Coast with 24 points.
"It's indescribable — my team was on fire," she said in an interview on ESPNU. "We just kept going and any time they went on a run, we came back and went on our own run. Everybody just came together today."
The game featured one of the most uncanny bank shots of the season by Florida Gulf Coast's Maddie Antenucci. It pogo-sticked twice off the rim and the play seemed to go in slow motion. Once the ball knocked twice off the top of the backboard — and in! — it was almost time to crank some celebratory Iron Maiden in the locker room.
“It was like, ahhh,” Carter said of the shot. “When it hit, you could just feel the electricity in the arena.”
Antenucci’s 3-pointer bounced four times before going through the net as part of her game-changing spree from beyond the arc. Carter scored 24 points and Tishara Moorehouse had 16 for the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament champion Eagles.
“We have a team that can be explosive,” coach Karl Smesko said.
Antenucci, who scored 11 points, turned into a sudden-scorer and turned a tight game into FGCU's game to lose. She averaged only 4.1 points this season, but hit FGCU’s second 3 of the game in the third quarter for a 43-38 lead. Her second straight 3 only 35 seconds later made it 46-40 and started to put some separation in the game.
Her third straight 3 was one for the highlight reel. Her shot bounced twice straight up off the back rim, tapped twice off the front corner of the backboard and plopped through the net. The three 3s in a 1 minute, 12-second span were Antenucci’s first three shots and first points of the game.
“I feel like that pretty much summed it up for us in the third quarter," Carter said, laughing.
The FGCU fans that filled a couple of sections inside the Pavilion erupted and Washington State called timeout. The Cougars never recovered. FGCU outscored Wazzu 30-16 in the third quarter.
Antenucci’s teammates took it from there. Moorehouse was fouled on a driving layup — Cougars guard Astera Tuhina slammed the ball in frustration — and she hit the free throw for a 58-47 lead. They took a 61-48 lead into the fourth quarter.
“It just felt like we didn’t get a handle on how to guard them,” coach Kamie Ethridge said.
The Eagles closed as 1½-point favorites, per FanDuel Sportsbook, so this would be no underdog upset, no matter the seeding.
While the Cougars made a habit of singing along in victory to Twain's signature tune, the Eagles did their coach a solid and blasted one of his favorites, Iron Maiden's “The Trooper” in the locker room.
Florida Gulf Coast sent a basketball program back to the area 10 years after the men’s famed “Dunk City” team won two games as a 12 seed in Philadelphia and advanced to the Sweet 16.
Smesko said he didn’t believe that magic could be recreated.
Unless, he joked, if the Eagles won.
Maybe Antenucci's funky 3 can earn them some “Kerplunk City” fame.
—Associated Press contributed
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 16 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at email@example.com.