UCA women face juggernaut for ASUN title

Few programs in the country have seen the sustained success at the level Florida Gulf Coast women's basketball has in the past 15 years.

Under the tutelage of Coach Karl Smesko, the Eagles have dominated the Atlantic Sun Conference since joining it in 2007.

Over that span, they have won 14 of 17 regular-season championships, including a perfect 16-0 campaign this season, 9 of 15 conference tournaments, four NCAA Tournament games and lost just 17 conference games in 17 seasons. The Eagles have currently won 21 games in a row..

Only Florida Gulf Coast and UConn have at least 25 wins each the past 14 seasons. The Eagles have the winningest program in the history of women's college basketball at .845.

That's the sort of juggernaut the University of Central Arkansas has in front of it in the ASUN championship game at 6 p.m. tonight, which will be streamed on ESPN-Plus.

The Sugar Bears (21-10) enter following two strong showing at the Farris Center in Conway, dispatching of North Alabama in the quarterfinals before defeating Eastern Kentucky 68-57 in the semifinals.

The Eagles (28-4) received a rare scare in their quarterfinal matchup with Jacksonville. They won 76-69 of their lone single-digit win against an ASUN opponent this season. Prior to that, their closest margin of victory was 11 points. They then recovered from a slow start to blow by Austin Peay 74-52 in the semifinals.

In their first meeting this season, Florida Gulf Coast and UCA traded blows throughout the first half but, as most games at Alico Arena have gone in recent years, the Eagles closed with a dominant 38-21 stretch to win 65-43.

"It's one of the toughest places to play in the country," UCA Coach Tony Kemper said. "Florida Gulf Coast might be the most dominant team in any league in the nation."

Florida Gulf Coast's last loss at Alico Arena in Fort Myers, Fla., came against Duke on Dec. 11, 2022.

In the first meeting, juniors Jade Upshaw and Bree Stephens led UCA by totaling 14 and 12 points, respectively, to score more than half of the Sugar Bears' points.

On the other end, four Florida Gulf Coast players scored in double figures, led by Uju Ezeudu's 16 points. Emani Jefferson, the ASUN Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year, scored 10 points to go with 7 rebounds and 5 steals.

Jefferson's presence played a key factor in quiet days for two of UCA's most important offensive starters, Randrea Wright (four points) and Kinley Fisher (two points), who combined to shoot 3 of 11 from the field.

In the two ASUN Tournament games, the duo has stepped up to compliment Upshaw on offense with a combined 19 points against North Alabama and 26 against Eastern Kentucky. Fisher scored a team-high 17 to carry the Sugar Bears' offense down the stretch against the latter.

Kemper has been on staff for much of the Sugar Bears' recent success as an assistant and now, in his first year back in Conway, as the head coach.

With the Sugar Bears playing as well as they have all season, a win today would give the Sugar Bears their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2017.

"It's pretty crazy after the year I had last year, and then [Kemper] coming in here," Fisher said. "He had a vision ,and he came in and he came rolling because we just had recruit after recruit, trying to get people to come here and rebuild this team and this program. And so it's just a complete 180 for me. It has been pretty special because if you would have told me last year that I would have been in this position, I don't think I would have believed you."

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