TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In its first year of eligibility, Florida Gulf Coast rolls into the NCAA women's tournament as the nation's top 3-point shooting team, a talent that has carried the Eagles to a 21-game winning streak.
Seeded 12th in the Raleigh Regional, Florida Gulf Coast (29-2) plays No. 5 seed St. Bonaventure (29-3) on Sunday in a matchup of schools making their first NCAA tournament appearances.
"Teams that can shoot the 3s are always dangerous, and they do it better than anybody in the country," St. Bonaventure coach Jim Crowley said Saturday. "It's the most important play in basketball. The 3-pointer can demoralize a team or pick a team up at any time."
Georgia coach Andy Landers, whose Bulldogs have the highest seed among the teams playing in first-round action at Tallahassee, said he was hugely mistaken when he initially believed that the 3-point shot wouldn't make much difference in the collegiate women's game. Landers said the 3-pointer is vital to the Bulldogs' chances of advancing in the tournament.
"It drives the ebb and flow in the momentum changes," he said.
Unlike the two newcomers to the NCAA tournament, Georgia and Marist are no strangers to the event.
No. 4 seed Georgia (22-8) is in the tournament for the 18th consecutive year and 29th time overall, while No. 13 seed Marist qualified for the seventh straight year and eighth time in nine years. They square off in Sunday's opening game.
Marist, like FGCU, also likes to shoot plenty of 3s — nearly two dozen a game.
"Your ability to defend it is critical, especially if you are playing against a team such as Marist that can shoot it as well as they do," Landers said.
Marist seniors Corielle Yarde and Brandy Gang led the Red Foxes in scoring at 14.1 points and 12.3 points a game, respectively. They have combined with sophomore Leanne Ockenden to make 152 shots from 3-point distance this season.
"It's going to be part of our game," Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. "When we have been successful in this tournament it has been because of great guard play."
Florida Gulf Coast, located in Fort Myers in southwestern Florida, hasn't lost since Dec. 28 and puts up nearly 30 shots a game from behind the 3-point arc.
The Lady Eagles shoot 37.3 percent from 3-point range, making an average of 10.8 per game to lead the nation. Sophomore Sarah Hansen leads FGCU at 14.3 points a game while senior Kelsey Jacobson's 80 field goals from 3-point distance lead the Eagles.
Redshirt sophomore Amber Rechis plays only about 10 minutes a game but lights it up from outside, shooting 56.9 percent from 3-point range.
"It's the reason that teams that don't maybe have as much size can make some noise," Crowley said. "If you can find people who can shoot the ball, you give yourself a shot."
St. Bonaventure, however, defends the outside shot well, holding opponents to just 28.7 percent from 3-point range.
"We're going to have to work really hard to get our shots," FGCU coach Karl Smesko said.
Smesko said his team can play a tight defensive game or do well in a run-and-shoot affair.
"We definitely like kids that can shoot it," he said.
And his players like to shoot, from just about anywhere.
"Coach has always allowed us to shoot the 3 when we're open," Jacobson said.