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2013 MEN'S NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

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Florida Gulf Coast’s Graf riding Sweet 16 wave

Former Berry standout, Charlotte native enjoying NCAA men’s basketball journey with Eagles

Florida Gulf Coast’s ride through the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has happened at such a speed that even Eagles players are having a hard time keeping up.

“We knew we could do this,” said Florida Gulf Coast freshman guard Dajuan Graf, who played at Charlotte’s Berry Academy. “But we didn’t know how fast things can change in three days.”

That’s the amount of time it took Florida Gulf Coast to become the first No. 15 seed in tournament history to make the Sweet 16. After second- and third-round victories against No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State, the Eagles will face No. 3 Florida on Friday in Dallas in the South Region.

The Eagles (26-10) have done it by not backing down against either of their higher-seeded opponents – and they don’t figure to against the Gators, either. With a free-wheeling, high-energy style of play – including at least a few memorable alley-oop dunks – Florida Gulf Coast has become the story of the tournament.

Right in the middle of it is Graf, a product of one of Charlotte’s more challenging academic high schools. That’s him, No. 35, front and center, celebrating after the San Diego State game in a photo on the school’s basketball website.

“A great kid,” said his former Cardinals coach Carlton Anthony. “Loves, eats, drinks and breathes basketball.”

Graf is a 6-foot backup point guard who is averaging 13.1 minutes and 2.4 points. However, his playing time in the NCAA tournament has decreased to 7.5 minutes behind starter Brett Comer.

Another player from the Carolinas, Raleigh’s Eric McKnight, is a starter at forward who scored nine points against San Diego State, including one of the Eagles’ spectacular dunks.

Graf has played enough to suit himself, though, which is why he went to Florida Gulf Coast in the first place.

“I just loved the coaches and they told me I’d get a chance to play,” said Graf, who helped Berry win two N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A championships.

He also endured personal tragedy at Berry when his close friend and teammate Jaquantus Pinder died unexpectedly.

“It was hard, not seeing him any more,” Graf said. “But I play hard for him. I know he’d be playing hard for me.”

Graf had interest coming out of high school from Charlotte, N.C. A&T, Winthrop, Wichita State and Jacksonville. When he took his official visit to Florida Gulf Coast’s Fort Myers, Fla., campus, he committed before returning home.

He said playing for the Eagles is every bit as fun as it looks, but the frivolity is tempered by a work ethic fostered by coach Andy Enfield.

“Our practices are pretty tough,” he said. “We really make it that way. But it’s fun to go at it like that.”

Florida Gulf Coast is, indeed, a new story. Established in 1991, it didn’t open its doors to students until 1997 and became eligible to play in the NCAA tournament only last year.

After an early-season victory against Miami (a No. 2 seed) and competitive losses against Duke, Iowa State, Virginia Commonwealth and St. John’s, the Eagles didn’t even win the Atlantic Sun Conference’s regular-season title. They had to win the league tournament to make the NCAA tournament.

Now, Florida Gulf Coast is receiving the kind of free national publicity it could never afford to buy, not the least of which are photos seen on television and the Internet of a beach and lake behind some of the school’s dormitories.

Graf knows that scene well.

“Yes, that’s right behind my dorm,” he said. “People go out there on the beach and lay out all the time. But we really don’t have time to lay out, because we’re either practicing or studying most of the time.

“And I heard that when we won (Sunday), there was almost like a riot, they were running all over the beaches.”

There was an on-campus pep rally Monday night.

“It’s still a surreal feeling,” said Graf. “Who knew that after playing two games in three days like we did, that it would all blow up like this?”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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