Panthers, Russo look ahead to new season

Jerica Coleynetted 21 points in the FIU win.

After capping last season with a 19-13 record and a loss to Florida in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament, this year the Panthers will have a tough road ahead during the regular season.

“It’s probably our toughest schedule in the last 10 years, but we are going to compete and hopefully we pull out more wins this year,” Head Coach Cindy Russo said.

In their 29 game schedule, FIU will face 12 teams that made it to the postseason a year ago. Four of those teams made the NCAA tournament and eight reached the WNIT. The Panthers will match up against Villanova and Prairie View A&M Dec. 6, last season’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament champion Middle Tennessee and the reigning Conference USA Tournament champion Tulsa.

Another obstacle for the Panthers will be their transition into Conference USA.

“Surely when you play a team a lot, you know all their strengths and weaknesses and you can combat them, but this season it will be new, and it will be like a new breath of fresh air,” Russo said.

Despite a majority of new conference opponents, FIU will still come across some familiar faces as Middle Tennessee, North Texas and Florida Atlantic also moved from the Sun Belt to C-USA this season.

For FIU, they will get their shot at making a strong opening statement as the season opener will be against in-state opponent Florida Gulf Coast University on Oct. 8. FGCU, a WNIT team last season, has beaten the Panthers in each of the past four seasons, with last year ending in a 69-45 win in Fort Meyers. FGCU was one of the few teams to hold senior All-American Jerica Coley in check. Coley, last year’s leading scorer in the nation, was held to a season-low nine points in that contest.

“They have been our worst nightmare; we just have a hard time matching up with this group,” Russo said. “They play an entirely different type of basketball than we do, they are a great team.”

After the season opener against the Eagles, the Panthers hit the road for the next three games; which is the most consecutive road games the Panthers will play all season. In contrast, the Panthers largest home stand of the season will be five games. Two games in the Fun and Sun Classic that takes place at the end of the December and then followed by three more home games against Palm Beach Atlantic, before kicking off conference play against Rice and East Carolina.

In total, the Panthers will have 15 home games and 14 road games. FIU will close the season with three of five at home with senior day happening on March 1 against Old Dominion, before closing the season on March 5 at Louisiana Tech with the C-USA Tournament beginning on March 11.

“This season is the most road games we will play out of conference,” Russo said. “I like to stay home as much as we can. If I could play all the games at home I would be happy, I would like to be the first coach to figure out how to do that. Miami is a great place to play and to get schools to come since it’s warm down here during the Christmas time especially for schools up north, so it’s a great tool to get talented schools to come down here.”

In addition to hosting the Fun and Sun Classic, the Panthers will host the 19th annual FIU Thanksgiving Classic in November. The Panthers will also travel to Gainesville, Fla. on Dec. 20 and 21 for the Gator Holiday Classic, with a possible matchup with Florida, the team that eliminated the Panthers from the WNIT last season.

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