Thanksgiving Classic highlights 2012-2013 schedule

Photo by Joseph Kosanke

Luis D. Gutierrez/ Staff Writer

It’s time to circle your calendars.

Louisiana State, West Virginia, and Iowa: three of the NCAA tournament’s participants from last season highlight the 2012-2013 women’s basketball schedule as they visit FIU for the annual Thanksgiving classic from November 23 to 25.

Beacon File Photo

“We’re excited to get going,” said Cindy Russo, head coach, in a press release as she officially announced the schedule last Wednesday.  “This schedule features tough non-conference teams and we’ll be prepared for a competitive conference season. We have higher expectations this year. The players are back. They have improved and they’re working hard. We’re ready to go.”

Russo will look to build upon last year’s relative success, where the Panthers won 23 games, going 10-6 in conference play. They earned a bid to the women’s National Invitation Tournament, before losing to South Florida 77-61.

However, the slate definitely looks to be challenging as FIU faces nine programs fresh off competition in postseason tournaments, NCAA and NIT alike.  Among those is Florida Gulf Coast, who the Panthers face on Nov.14 in Fort Myers, during their first road game of the season.  Last season, the Eagles finished 29-3, running a clean 18-0 slate in the Atlantic Sun Conference before losing to St. Bonaventure 72-65 in the NCAA tournament.

FIU will face Middle Tennessee, which finished 16-0 in the Sun Belt Conference during the regular season and eliminated the Panthers from the conference semifinals for the first time on Dec. 20  in Murfreesboro.  The Blue Raiders will make their way to the U.S. Century Bank Arena on Jan. 31 to complete the two-game conference set.  The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which shocked many around the college basketball circles by defeating Middle Tennessee 71-70 in overtime to win the conference championship, faces FIU on Jan. 12 in Little Rock and on Feb. 21 in Miami.

Despite a healthy conference record, the Panthers went a combined 0-4 against both conference stalwarts last season.  However, a silver lining indicates FIU won 12 games, in the regular season and conference tournament against the rest of its other Sun Belt foes.  The Panthers open up conference play on Nov. 19 against Western Kentucky on the road, in which both teams split their regular season meetings last year.  FIU plays its main rival Florida Atlantic on Feb. 6 in Miami and on Mar. 2 in Boca Raton.  The Panthers lost both meetings against the Owls last year, by a mere three points combined, losing 50-49 at home and 51-49, just two weeks later at FAU.

All eyes will be on the FIU’s annual Thanksgiving classic as Jerica Coley, who finished sixth in the country last season in scoring with 23.4 points per game, leads FIU in a four-team gauntlet against the three NCAA participants.  Ranked as eighth seeds entering the tournament, LSU and West Virginia advanced past the first round defeating San Diego State and Texas respectively, with Iowa losing to California 84-74.  The Panthers inaugurate the tournament by playing Iowa and will face either the winner or loser of the contest between the Tigers and Mountaineers the following day.

FIU opens its 2012 campaign with two exhibition games against the University of Quebec on Oct. 25 and at Barry on Nov. 11.  The Panthers also play state rival Central Florida on Dec. 13 in Miami and compete for the conference championship from March 8 to 11, in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

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