Panthers and two-time Sun Belt Player of the Year Jerica Coley, set for Sun Belt tournament

Jerica Coley, right, earned the Sun Belt Player of the Year Award for the second straight season. Coley leads the nation in scoring with 26.1 points per game

Ruben Palacios/Staff Writer

The regular season is over, and now every team will adopt the same mindset: win or go home.

With the regular season finally coming and going it is time for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to kick off. The women’s basketball team finished the season with an 18-11 (12-8 SBC) record and earned the no.5 seed and a first-round bye in the tournament. The squad won five of its last seven games in order to earn their second first-round bye in the last three years.

“The way we are looking at it no one team is so much better than the others,” Said Junior Jerica Coley. “We are going to go in and give it all we got. We want to win and we know we have a really good chance.”

The Panthers will play the no.4 seed Arkansas State on Saturday, March 9 at 12:30 p.m. ASU finished the year 15-14 (12-8 SBC) and were one of only two teams to defeat FIU in both of their regular season matchups.

“The matchup with ASU is as good as any,” Russo said. “But they certainly are beatable both games in the regular season were close games.”

In addition to being matched up against an opponent who they did not beat at all this year, Head Coach Cindy Russo notes that another factor could play a huge role in the game: mid-term exams.

“Unfortunately we are taking mid-terms right now and all the girls have taken three or four exams last week so they’re pretty brain dead,” Russo said. “Exams are not a good combination when you are trying to get ready for a tournament.”

ASU beat the Panthers on Nov.29 in a tight 60-57 contest in Miami. The Red Wolves were able to shut down the All-American in Coley. They were able to hold the nation’s leading scorer to just 14 points on 7 of 23 shooting from the field and an abysmal 0 of 5 from behind the arc.

The Panthers traveled to Jonesboro, Ark., later in the year and were met with a similar outcome; they lost another tight contest 49-43. The Red Wolves took it to Coley once again; holding her to only 15 points on 7 of 20 shooting from the field and another 0 of 5 shooting performance from the three-point line.

“They play good defense, they take their time on offense; they run it all the way through and they have multiple people who can score.” Coley said about the team who successfully shut her down this year.

In order to advance in the tournament, the Panthers will have to find the right ways to adjust to ASU and figure out how to finally take them down.

“We need to play good solid defense, get everyone involved, put in the easy shots and definitely rebound,” Coley said. “We need to get back to rebounding like we did in the beginning of the year.”

Rebounding, as Coley noted, should be a focal point in the Panthers game plan against ASU. In the two regular season matchups, the Panthers outrebounded the Red Wolves by an average of 14 rebounds per game. The Panthers will have to use their size advantage as a way to turn rebounds into fast-break opportunities and easy shots.

“They are a good team but we think we can beat them,” Coley said. “We can beat anybody in our conference so it really doesn’t matter.”

Coley, the nation’s leading scorer at 26.1 points per game, must step up her game against the Red Wolves in order for her team to succeed. It is plain and simple: as Coley goes so does her squad. The All-American will look to put up her usually stellar numbers against ASU for the first time this year. ASU held Coley to an average of 14.5 points per game in their two matchups thus far, almost 12 points below her season average.

Coley believes the Red Wolves’ chances of beating her and her team three times in a year are slim.

“Hopefully it will be really hard for them. We know they beat us two times so we are definitely going in knowing that and we want to turn around and beat them,” Coley said. “Maybe we are coming in as the underdogs but we just don’t want them to beat us again.”

“This could potentially be our last game. If we go in with that mindset it should definitely make us play harder. We just have to play like it’s our last game,” Coley added.

If the Panthers get by ASU they would likely face off in a semifinals game against Middle Tennessee. The Panthers split the season series with the Blue Raiders, with both teams winning on their opponent’s home floor. The Blue Raiders are the no.1 seed in the tournament and finished the regular season 22-7 (17-3 SBC).

“It doesn’t matter who the opponent is at this time,” Coley said. “Any game we go into any team can beat any team so we just have to be ready to play.”

“The team that comes in and plays the hardest is going to win,” Russo added. “Whoever is the healthiest, the strongest and mentally and physically toughest will win.”

About the Author

Ruben Palacios
is the Assistant News Director of FIU student media, a sports junkie and a sneaker enthusiast. Not necessarily in that order. Loves the L.A. Lakers and Oakland Raiders. In that order.