Kevin Castaneda/ Staff Writer
The men came close, just not close enough.
On Jan. 31, the FIU men’s basketball team fell apart in a devastating loss to the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, 66-64.
In their previous meeting, the Panthers lost to the Blue Raiders on the road by 17 points. It was the second largest margin of defeat for FIU, only behind the shellacking they took from Louisville. Tymell Murphy, the Panther’s leading rebounder, had zero boards in that
After that humiliating loss to the Blue Raiders (19-4, 11-1 Sun Belt Conference), Murphy and the Panthers (11-10, 6-6 SBC) tightened up their play going 7-2 before entering this contest. FIU had a five-game home winning streak on the line against the best team in the SBC.
The Panthers pounced early and went into the half with a 17-point lead. The team absolutely dominated the Blue Raiders through the first 20 minutes of play. FIU held the number one team in the SBC to 27 percent from the field, 27 percent from the three-point line and forced 13 turnovers.
The Blue Raiders, who were ranked number one in three-point field goal defense, allowed the Panthers to shoot a blistering 60 percent from beyond the arc. FIU also converted those 13 turnovers, 10 of them coming from steals, into 22 points.
This, however, would prove to be a tale of two halves.
Raymond Cintron, who was 0-for-3 from the three-point line in the first half, ignited down the stretch. He was a perfect 4-for-4 from the perimeter, bringing his MT back into the game.
“He’s a really good player and you’ve got to respect him and you can’t leave him like that,” FIU Head Coach Richard Pitino said.
After two wild three-point attempts by FIU’s Malik Smith and Marco Porcher Jimenez that were way off, Middle Tennessee was able to tie up the ball game with 0.9 seconds left in the game.
“Malik shot a three in transition that was ridiculous. Marco shot a three in transition that was ridiculous and we have addressed that over the last week,” Pitino said. “We really worked on that – time and scoring. They didn’t learn their lesson.”
With the ball under their basket, Middle Tennessee’s Head Coach Kermit Davis drew up the perfect alley-oop pass to Shawn Jones.
“We knew the play. They just have taller and more athletic players than we do. We knew it was coming,” Pitino said.
Porcher Jimenez, a redshirt sophomore, may have missed a pivotal three late in the Middle Tennessee game, but overall, he has elevated his play and found his role on the team.
He is currently FIU’s most efficient shooter from beyond the arc. His 44 percent from the three-point line is the second best in the SBC.
His performances against South Alabama and Middle Tennessee earned him a starting role in the team’s contest against Louisiana Monroe (3-15, 2-10 SBC).
Versus the Warhawks, Porcher Jimenez recorded his fourth straight double-digit scoring game. His fourth rebound of the game clinched the 76-73 win for the Panthers on Feb. 2.
(NOT) FOREVER YOUNG
Pitino is only 30 years old. He only has four active seniors on his team. The rest of his active players are either sophomore walk-ons or from small junior colleges. The only exception to that rule is Jerome Frink, who is the lone playing freshman on the team.
After 22 games and back-to-back two point losses to the number one and number two teams in the SBC, it finally dawned on Pitino. The team is young.
“I was really upset, not at the players, but I was really disappointed we didn’t get the two wins [South Alabama, Middle Tennessee], because I thought we made a lot of mistakes,” Pitino said. “I went home and I thought about it, and these guys are basically all freshmen. None of them have played college basketball the way that we play.”
The two defeats can be crippling on the minds of young players and Pitino expressed his concern over a possible mental collapse going into the Louisiana-Monroe game.
“I was really concerned, because you think you are going to have a letdown. I thought at shoot around today those guys were so focused and so hungry to show people we are a good team and we’re not just a flash in the pan,” Pitino said.
With seven games left on the schedule, Pitino has nearly a full season under his belt to reference and learn from.
The Panthers’ next game will be Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. at the U.S. Century Bank Arena against the Florida Atlantic Owls (11-13, 6-7 SBC).