Blue Raiders defeat FIU at buzzer in regular season finale

David Drucker/ Staff Writer

The men’s basketball team (13-18, 7-11 in Conference USA) dropped a heartbreaking 61-58 decision Saturday, March 5, to Middle Tennessee State University.

After the Panthers fought their way back into the game from a seven-point deficit, MTSU’s Jaqawn Raymond hit a go-ahead three pointer with 1.8 seconds left in the game to hand the Panthers a loss on senior night.

“It’s college basketball. You go into it, prepare and both teams battle. It was a one-point game last time and they hit a shot to win it this time,” said Head Coach Anthony Evans.

Saturday’s game was another rough night of shooting for the Panthers. FIU shot 38 percent from the field and 25percent from three point range.

The Raiders did an excellent shot of closing out on FIU’s looks and forced them to take contested shots.

What FIU had on their side, however, was newfound effort and focus. After turning the ball over a season-high 22 times versus the University of Alabama at Birmingham Thursday, March 3, the Panthers were focused enough to limit themselves to just seven turnovers against MTSU. The defensive intensity was there as well; they held the Raiders to 41 percent shooting from the field.

“We’re not that far away. Some of the mistakes that we make – some of the mental errors like rotations and things like that – can be cleaned up and hopefully we can go to the tournament and make a run,” said Evans.

FIU seniors center Adrian Diaz and forward Daviyon Draper were honored in front of a substantial crowd before their final home game. MTSU would rest Giddy Potts, the nation’s second-best three point shooter by percentage, due to a concussion.

The Panthers kept the contest close the entire first half. FIU sophomore Cameron Smith was key in keeping the team’s energy up when Diaz exited the first half due to foul trouble. The reserve forward delivered a one-handed slam over MTSU’s Darnell Harris to keep FIU close at 18-21 with 11:41 left in the first half.

Junior forward Elmo Stephen also had a big night off of the bench, scoring a team-high 14 points on the night. At halftime, the Panthers were down 35-31 to the Raiders.

MTSU got out to a 47-40 advantage – their largest lead of the night – with 12:58 left in the first half thanks to a made three point basket and back-to-back offensive fouls by FIU. Diaz headed to the bench after picking up his fifth foul shortly after.

Draper cut down MTSU’s lead thanks to some due diligence from the charity stripe. He then tied the game up at 56-56 with a sweeping layup across the paint. MTSU came back with two points, but a Stephen jumper tied it right back up at 58-58 with 2:27 to go.

“It was a tough night. My teammates did a good job of keeping me in the game and keeping me focused. I was just trying to find a way to help the team,’ said Draper.

The comeback went awry in the game’s final seconds. On FIU’s best chance to take the lead, Draper was blocked as he drove in the lane with 49.2 seconds left. MTSU had a chance at a wide open three from the corner on the next possession but missed the shot.

Junior guard Donte McGill missed a three point shot on FIU’s next possession. The Raiders then moved the ball down the court and FIU lost Raymond in the corner, who made the game-winning three.

FIU’s regular season finale might seem like too cruel of a result for most college basketball programs, but somehow it seemed like an appropriate ending to FIU’s frustrating regular season.

The Panthers won five of their first seven conference games and was one of C-USA’s bright spots. This optimism quickly faded as the Panthers went on to lose nine of their next eleven.

With the regular season completed, the Panthers will move on to participate in the Conference USA Championship in Birmingham, Alabama.

As the #11 seed, they will be tonight at 9:30 p.m. against No.6 University of Texas at El Paso – the team that eliminated them from the tournament last year.

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