WITH TWO Final Fours and a host of regional and sub-regional events, Philadelphia's tradition with the NCAA Tournament is long and storied.

If you want one moment - you could pick Christian Laettner making that last-second shot in overtime as Duke beat Kentucky, 103-102, in overtime in the 1992 East Regional final at the Spectrum in which many call the greatest college game ever played.

For one game, it could be Indiana beating Michigan, 86-68, in the 1976 championship game at the Spectrum to complete the last undefeated season in NCAA history.

But as far as one team coming into Philadelphia and capturing the imagination of the City of Brotherly Love, it's going to be hard to top the 2013 squad from tiny Florida Gulf Coast University.

In a weekend performance that completely exhibited the moxie, fight and underdog determination that defines Philadelphia, the previously unknown Eagles - champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference - made NCAA history by becoming the first 15th seed to advance to the Sweet 16.

Using a 17-0 run in the second half to separate from seventh-seeded San Diego State, FGCU, which didn't exist 20 years ago and whose basketball program just became eligible for the NCAA Tournament last season, earned a trip to the South Regional semifinals with an 81-71 victory.

"As everyone saw, we're doing something special out here," said FGCU guard Sherwood Brown. "We've been told that this is what college basketball is all about.

"I mean, we're really blessed and we're really happy. But we've still got a lot more games to play hopefully."

Again we're talking history here.

When the Eagles (26-10) beat second-seeded Georgetown 78-68 on Friday, it was big because it made them just the seventh 15th seed to win a game in the tournament.

But none of the other previous six could do anything more than hold that one precious memory.

Florida Gulf Coast is different.

Greedy to extend their first NCAA experience beyond Philadelphia, the Eagles used the same dynamic flair of athleticism and passion to wear down and break the spirit of San Diego State (23-11).

"We wanted to get the crowd behind us," said Eagles guard Brett Comer, who had 10 points and 14 assists. "When we have that type of energy going we're a hard team to beat, when we're pushing the ball and all the excitement. We just so much fun playing together. It's a fun time and we're doing a great job of controlling the game."

Since these Eagles aren't from Philadelphia, I guess it's OK to break out "The Rocky" clichés to describe just what they did this weekend - you just have to skip Rockies I, II and III and go directly to Rocky IV.

This was the street fighter from South Philly taking on Ivan Drago in the form of Georgetown and San Diego State.

It was two battles of wills that the kids from Fort Myers, Fla., simply dominated.

"Words can't describe the feeling as being a 15 seed, the first 15 seed to ever do this," Comer said.

San Diego State knew what was coming. The Aztecs had seen the Atlantic Sun champions push around Georgetown of the Big East.

The Aztecs came to play.

The game was a back-and-forth and with about 11 1/2 minutes remaining, FGCU held a 54-52 advantage.

And then it - whatever it is in situations like this is - happened.

It was like the teams were in a drag race and FGCU suddenly got a boost of nitrous oxide.

In a dazzling display of tough defense and high-flying offense, the Eagles put on a seven-minute show that had the sellout crowd at the Wells Fargo Center on the edge of their seats.

It was just basketball nirvana, a bunch of underdog kids grabbing the rarest of moments and playing with a joy for the game that made their quest undeniable.

"We don't take ourselves too seriously," FGCU coach Andy Enfield said. "We have a lot of guys who are characters. I like to let our guys play.

"I told our players before Georgetown, you earned the right to here by winning your conference championship. We said the same thing tonight. If you're good enough to beat San Diego State, you will. Our mentally was we're going to play our game and see what happens."

I can't think of a single thing that San Diego State could have done to avoid the whirlwind of will Florida Gulf Coast exhibited.

By the time the Aztecs knew what hit them; they were trailing 71-52 and wondering how the Eagles were going to run out the final four minutes.

"Florida State is a very, very good team and they play terrific" San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher said, proving that it's hard to win when you aren't sure who you are playing. "They proved it all season long and they proved it again today.

"We put keys to the game, and I told them the No. 1 key to the game is runs. Obviously they went on an 18 or 19-0 run on us. We contributed a little, but they did it."

Fisher, who has a stop at Michigan in his long coaching résumé, came back with another Philadelphia connection to explain what FGCU had done to them.

"They ran hard, they ran consistent," Fisher said. "They're playing with a kind of momentum that they have earned.

"I was coaching when [Dobbins Tech legend] Hank Gathers died [after collapsing in a West Coast Conference Tournament game] and we played Loyola Marymount in the second game of the [NCAA] tournament in 1990.

"We had a lot of guys back from a team that had won a national championship the year before. They ran us off the floor. They had a momentum and flow that captivated not only a community but the country."

That's Florida Gulf Coast right now. It's a team that is in uncharted territory, which makes it as dangerous as it is vulnerable.

Who knows how the Eagles will perform when they face No. 3 seed Florida in a South Regional semifinal on Friday in Arlington, Texas?

We do know that they won't go into the game against their bigger and presumably better, cross-state foe with a hint of intimidation, fear or hesitancy.

That's just not their style.

Columns: philly.com/Smallwood