Panthers’ Success over Break Brings Hope

David Drucker/ Staff Writer

While most FIU students spent their winter vacation huddled up at home, the men’s basketball team was hard at work on Lime Court and on the road. From the end of the fall semester to the beginning of spring, the Panthers compiled a 4-3 record, redeeming some of their early season troubles as they fought their way back to .500 (8-8, 2-1 in Conference USA). During this stretch, the Panthers saw a five-game winning streak end and a four-game winning come to life.

The holiday season started with a rough patch for the Panthers. On Monday, Dec. 14, FIU traveled to Jacksonville to face off against the University of North Florida. The Ospreys lit up the Panthers’ defense, shooting 41 percent from three and 75 percent from the free throw line in a 94-72 rout. UNF only turned the ball over on four occasions compared to the Panthers’ eleven.

Next up on FIU’s three-game road trip was a battle against the Northern Illinois University Huskies on Saturday, Dec. 19 that stretched into a second overtime. Senior center Adrian Diaz got himself into foul trouble early in this contest, scoring just seven points in 17 minutes. He fouled out with 5:29 left in the second half. Stepping up in his place, however, was junior guard Donte McGill; the transfer student dropped 23 points on 8-15 shooting, including 4-5 from three point range. In a game that saw a total of 15 lead changes, FIU found themselves down 78-75 with five seconds left when senior forward Elmo Stephen drained a three from 25 feet out to tie the game at 58-58 and force overtime. Stephen scored a total of 15 points in what was his second game at the University.

The Panthers were fouled often in the first overtime against NIU, but to Head Coach Anthony Evans’ delight, they shot 7-8 from the free throw line. FIU couldn’t defend senior Travon Baker with seconds remaining as they watched him run the full length of the court for a game-tying layup. Although the former Sunblazers scored the first points of the second overtime, their offense was shut down in the final two minutes and fell to the Huskies 74-72.

On the last leg of the road trip, the Panthers beat a Binghamton University team on Tuesday,  Dec. 22 that would provide a morale boost for FIU’s imminent four-game winning streak. The Bearcats were abysmal from the floor, shooting 26 percent from the field and 14 percent from three. Although the Panthers were not much more efficient – they were 3-16 from three and lost the turnover battle 10-3 – McGill showed up again in a big way, leading FIU with 22 points. FIU took the game 66-49.

On Tuesday, Dec. 29, FIU put together another impressive performance on defense as they wrapped up their non-conference schedule with a 65-45 win at home over Florida A&M University. Stephen impressed again in his young career at FIU, sinking six triples on 6-10 shooting. The Panthers proved in this contest that when they settle down and focus, they can make huge scoring runs. With 4:12 left in the first half, they threw together a 19-0 run to put them up 45-25. FIU’s defense held on to get the victory in their first match of a two-game home stand.

The Panthers rang in the new year in the best way possible: a 76-59 win over their conference rival, Florida Atlantic University. Diaz took over in the second half, scoring 20 of his 23 at a time when he is usually susceptible to being removed because of foul trouble. McGill played a key role as well, notching 22 points.

After a hard-fought first half that saw FIU on top 30-25, Diaz got the Panthers rolling, scoring their first 12 points of the second half. FAU didn’t give up easily, however, and responded with a 10-0 in a span of less than three minutes. The Panthers took the reigns back though, outscoring the Owls 21-10 through the rest of regulation.

In what was their signature win of the four-game winning streak, the Panthers shocked Western Kentucky University on Thursday, Jan. 7 when they created a last-minute comeback to defeat the Wildcats 75-72. Senior forward Daviyon Draper and McGill led the way, scoring 21 and 16 points respectively. The incredible offense can be chalked up to the fact that the two conference foes were remarkably efficient from the free throw line, with WKU shooting 90% and the Panthers shooting 94%. Even Diaz, who normally struggled from the charity stripe, went 8-8.

Although WKU had the edge for most of the second half, FIU found another gear with 5:33 left in the game and got on a stunning scoring run. In the final 3:26 of the game, the Panthers outscored the Wildcats 13-2. As the final minute was evaporating with the score tied up 72-72, McGill gained possession off of a WKU turnover and sank a game-winning three pointer. The win gave the Panthers a perfect 2-0 conference record.

On Saturday, Jan. 9, Marshall University broke the Panthers’ relatively stout defense over the break in a 99-81 victory over FIU. Although Draper set a new career-high with 25 points, this game was all Marshall. The Thundering Herd secured a 34-17 lead midway through the first half and wouldn’t give it up through the rest of the game. FIU picked up their first loss in C-USA play with the defeat on the road.

FIU’s record over the break confirms that this team is more streaky than they were in 2014-2015. Beginning with a stunning 75-81 loss at home to Stetson on Monday, Nov. 30, the Panthers skidded to five losses in a row. They rebounded with the win over Binghamton however, ripping off four wins in a row. The longest winning streak last year was the Panthers’ 3-0 start against Florida College, Stetson and Florida Memorial. Their longest losing streak was during their C-USA stretch late in the season against North Texas, Marshall and Western Kentucky University.

The Panthers are scheduled to play their first game of the spring semester on Thursday, Jan. 14 when they host Louisiana Tech.

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