FIU Falls Short Against Rising 49ers

David Drucker/ Staff Writer

Just when Florida International University’s men’s basketball team thought their consistency struggles were behind them, old business resurfaced in ugly fashion on Thursday night as the Panthers (11-10, 5-3 in Conference USA) fell to the University of Charlotte 49ers in a frustrating 72-69 loss. A lack of energy and careless turnovers – issues that FIU hoped were corrected during its successful Texas road trip – came back to haunt the Panthers as the wheels came off late in the second half.

“It’s a learning process. We need to learn to play with the same energy we’ve had all year and have to stay focused. I don’t think we played with energy tonight. I think we came out flat,” said Head Coach Anthony Evans.

FIU entered the game as the winners of seven of their last nine games. In Charlotte’s last time out, the 49ers scored 51 points in the second half of their win over Western Kentucky University. A core of young players had been developing nicely for this year’s Charlotte team heading into the contest, leading them to a two-game winning streak. Freshman guard John Davis highlighted his team’s growth, as shown by his 22.0 points per game average in the week heading into Thursday’s game.

The Panthers stumbled out of the gate; two careless turnovers on offense led to an early 11-6 Charlotte lead. Draper scored the first points of the game for FIU on a baseline jumper. The senior would go on to fill out the stat box, notching 24 points on 10-15 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists. The Panthers made a run thanks to three point baskets from McGill and Nottage and FIU took its first lead of the night at 17-16. They continued to attack the paint, scoring 20 points down low in the first half. Turnovers and second chance opportunities crippled the Panthers, however, and at halftime the 49ers led FIU 37-36.

In the second half, FIU’s determination to attack Charlotte in the paint became something of an overused strategy instead of an advantage. Diaz led the Panthers down-low, scoring 17 points on 7-10 shooting. He was not often double-teamed though, unlike how many Conference USA teams choose to defend him. Charlotte also switched their defensive scheme often to confuse FIU’s offense. This led to inadequate floor spacing on FIU’s part and a 2-7 second half of shooting from three point range.

Despite FIU’s struggles on offense, they did enough on defense to keep the game close late in the second half. The Panthers had a chance to make a comeback down 71-66 with 3:00 to play, but any realistic chance at a late run disappeared when Draper committed back-to-back turnovers and junior guard Ray Rodriguez air-balled a three point attempt. In a last ditch effort, Draper was fouled on a successful three point shot with 1.4 seconds left to play to close the score to within two points. The intentional miss on his free throw did not find a Panther, however, and FIU dropped the game in a 71-69 decision.

Diaz expressed after the game what he can as a senior leader on the team to dial up his team’s energy in the future.

“[I can] try to be more vocal out on the floor. Try not to attack personal players and give them encouragement and hope that they respond from that,” said Diaz.

FIU ended the game shooting 49% from the field – a number that was inflated by 38 points in the paint. The Panthers held Charlotte to 40% from the field, but allowed them 17 second chance points. In hustle statistics, Charlotte bested the Panthers 37-33 on the boards, including a 16-8 edge in offensive rebounding. FIU recorded 11 blocks compared to Charlotte’s one.

McGill, who was on a tear when he last played on Lime Court, could not seem to get involved in this contest. He went 4-12 from the field, finishing with 13 total points. Since Diaz spent the majority of the game down low, McGill was unable to benefit from the open looks he usually gets off of Diaz screens.

FIU’s “big three” – McGill, Diaz and Draper – scored 54 of their team’s 69 total points. Although the three have normally been outstanding for FIU this season, others have had a hard time making an impact this year. In FIU’s last two losses, bench players have contributed an average of only 7.5 points per game.

“We have to move the ball. Last game we played we had 21 assists and it was a great effort all around. Tonight, the ball stuck,” said Evans.

Next up for the Panthers is a Jan. 30 matchup against Old Dominion University at FIU Arena.

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