Kevin Castaneda/staff writer
The FIU men’s basketball team defeated No.1 Middle Tennessee 61-57 in the Sun Belt Conference tournament semi-finalson March 10 to advance to the championship round for the first time in school history.
The Panthers had every opportunity to collapse like they did on Jan. 31 against the Blue Raiders, giving up a 17-point halftime lead. This time the team kept their composure all 40 minutes. The Panthers snapped the Blue Raiders’ 17-game winning streak, a mark that led the nation in active streaks, with the close win.
“Deric Hill, Malik Smith and Cameron Bell, that’s in their disposition, they’re always that way, they never get rattled,” Head Coach Richard Pitino said. “Sometimes I’m on the sideline acting like a lunatic and they really do calm me down.”
Sophomore Deric Hill followed up his six-steal performance against UALR on March 9, with four more against Middle Tennessee. The Miami native also had a team-high 16 points and six assists.
His most important basket came in the second half with only 12 seconds to go. He drove to the basket hard and made a circus-like layup to put his team up by four. Driving hard to the basket was a key component for Hill’s game, as he also drew multiple fouls. His 10-for-11 from the charity stripe was efficient and remarkable.
“He changes the game. He is top four in the country in steal percentage. He is one of the best on ball defenders,” Pitino said. “He has so much heart and so much toughness.
Hill stated he likes to set the tempo for the rest of the team. However, it was Ivan Jurkovic, getting a rare start, who scored the first points of the game. The Panthers and the Blue Raiders battled back-and-forth for nearly 13 minutes in the first half. Both teams would exchange buckets and leads. Then Hill hit two free-throws to put the Panthers up 16-15 at the 6:47 mark. The Panthers would not relinquish the lead for the remainder of the game. Smith made certain of that when he hit the final two free throws of the game to seal the deal for the Panthers.
“You know when Malik Smith stepped up to the line I really didn’t have any doubt that he was going to make those two free throws,” Pitino said.
Senior Cameron Bell also had a good game for FIU, with 15 points and 4 rebounds. He also added three key 3-point field goals to keep the Panthers ahead of MTSU.
Pitino, who is in his first year as a head coach, is still undefeated in postseason play. Though it has only been two games, he has accomplished something no other coach has done for FIU basketball: taking the Panthers to the championship. Those expectations were set before the season began when FIU was picked to finish second to last in the SBC.
Kermit Davis, the Middle Tennessee head coach, only had praise for the Panthers and Pitino following the game.
“Richard’s done a fantastic job at FIU,” Davis said. “They had us on our heels from the first two minutes. We kind of chased them.”
FIU will take on No.6 Western Kentucky on March 11 at 7 p.m. for the Sun Belt Championship. The Panthers are 1-1 against the Hilltoppers this year.