Kevin Castaneda/staff writer
After playing 22 games this season, the men’s basketball team finally faced off against their instate conference rival, the Florida Atlantic University Owls, at the U.S. Century Bank Arena. The Panthers dominated the Owls in nearly every facet of the game, as they pulled out an 84-65 victory at home on Feb. 7.
FAU (11-14, 6-8 SBC) was the number one three-point shooting team in the Sun Belt Conference going into the game, hitting 38 percent of their long balls. Greg Gantt, the Owls starting shooting guard, was also the number one scorer in the SBC, averaging 21 points a game.
The Panthers (13-10, 8-6) must have not get the memo apparently, as they held the Owls to 0-for-9 from the perimeter in the first half. The Panthers also forced Gantt to take some ugly long-range looks, as he shot an abysmal 2-for-10 from the three in the game.
“That was one of the main focal points that we knew they were a great three‐point shooting team,” Head Coach Richard Pitino said. “I thought the guys really locked into the scouting report and did a good job.”
FIU trailed for about 12 minutes in the first half, but after tying the game at 14, they went on an 18-4 run. The avalanche started after point guard Cameron Bell slam dunked the ball on Pablo Bertone. The energy from the crowd cheering must have transferred to center Jerome Frink, as he also took a fast break home with a monster dunk on Kelvin Penn.
“It brought a lot of energy to the crowd and the team,” Bell said. “Those are momentum plays that you really feed off of.”
With eight tenths of a second left in the first half, senior forward Tola Akomolafe sneaked in a buzzer beater layup. The basket capped off a 15-6 run by the Panthers, putting them up 49-28 at the break.
Even with the 21 point lead at the half, Pitino knew to keep his team mentally in check. He did not want a repeat of the Middle Tennessee game on Jan. 31, when the Panthers let a 17 point first half lead slip away in a devastating loss.
“We talked about it at halftime. We learned a lot from the Middle Tennessee game from how to handle being up,” Pitino said. “Florida Atlantic is a very good team. They are going to make their run. They are not going to let down.”
FAU did make their run immediately to open the half with Gantt and Stefan Moody hitting back-to-back threes.
“We know that they can get hot. That Moody and Gantt can really get hot,” forward Tymell Murphy said. “So we just kept chasing them to the three point line and made sure they saw a hand in their face.”
A few minutes later following those FAU threes, Frink attacked the basket hard and forced another dunk through. Shooting guard Malik Smith then hit two three-pointers of his own, swinging the momentum back in FIU’s favor.
The Panthers also did a great job spreading out their 84 points in the game. They had four players in double-digits. Tymell Murphy even flirted with double-double, coming up just short by one rebound.
“I was a little frustrated with myself because I missed a couple of shots I normally make,” Murphy said. “My teammates and my coaches just try to keep me confident.”
The team’s positive attitude gave Murphy the encouragement he needed to provide a game-high six steals and a game-high three blocks.
The Panthers will need the momentum of a 19-point victory when they go on the road to North Texas on Feb. 9. They beat the Mean Green 70-64 in their previous meeting at home, but on the road FIU has a record of 5-7.
“Playing a team the second time around is always going to be a war. North Texas is going to go back and look at all the things that they didn’t like. They are going to make a lot of adjustments,” Pitino said. “It’s going to be a very tough game for us. It’s another good test.”