Panthers fall to Western Kentucky in SBC championship to cap strong season

Kevin Castaneda/staff writer

For the last 13 years, FIU stewed in the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference rankings.

They were not supposed to get a first-round bye this year. They were not supposed to make it out of their first game in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, against Arkansas-Little Rock. They were not supposed to beat the top-seeded ranked Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders to make it to the championship. The Panthers did all of these things and more this season. And even though they lost to Western Kentucky, 65-63, in the SBC championships, the Panthers sure made it exciting to watch.

FIU dug themselves an early hole as WKU went on a 9-2 run to start the ball game. The Panthers, who had been playing high-pressure defense on the back of Deric Hill, were unable to stop Hilltoppers George Fant and Aleksejs Rostov. Head Coach Richard Pitino made the conscious decision to end the bleeding with a timeout near the 17-minute mark.

Forcing the ball out of Rostov’s hands in the paint, FIU began to climb back. Senior point guard Cameron Bell hit the first basket out of the timeout. Malik Smith would follow up with a long three-pointer, just like he had been doing all tournament long. Jerome Frink, the team’s freshman center, scored the next basket on a monster dunk. The Panthers kept tacking on buckets, giving them an 11-0 run in less than four minutes. Fant tried answering back with a jumper of his own. Up 13-11, Smith hit another long distance three that forced WKU’s Head Coach Ray Harper to call a full timeout.

The timeout let WKU climb back into the ball game, as they took a 31-29 lead going into the half. The Hilltoppers went on to maintain that lead for the remainder of the game.

The win gives WKU their second straight SBC title, and their fourth in the last six years. The pedigree of the Hilltoppers program is something the Panthers witnessed. Even though WKU came in as a sixth seed, they were by no means an underdog to FIU. FIU did, however, battle as if the Hilltoppers were a No.1 seed.

Inexperience and the big stage could have been the primary reason for the Panthers’ downfall. Hill, who had been playing well above his averages, only mustered up four points in the game. Tymell Murphy, the team’s superstar who averaged 15 points this season, registered only 11 in the ball game. The Panthers were averaging nearly 10 steals a game, but only picked off the Hilltoppers twice.

Pitino, the first year head coach for FIU, can definitely reference this game going forward. His team allowed the Hilltoppers to shoot almost 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from the three. The reason FIU was so effective against UALR and Middle Tennessee was their pressure defense. UALR was held to 30 percent from the field and a deplorable 16 percent from the three. MTSU was held to 37 percent from the field and only 20 percent from the three. FIU did not collapse against WKU, but it was apparent that maintaining their high-pace style throughout the tournament may have finally caught up to them.

The Panthers will be heading back to Miami after the crushing championship loss. They were in it nearly the whole way through. What should keep their heads high is that it was the first time the program has ever reached such a prestigious stage. It was their first winning season since 1999-2000. Their 18 wins is a stark difference from the eight they had last year.

Now, with their latest reference point being the taste of a championship game, the Panthers will be hungry to reach there again.