Written by Christian Almanza/Contributing Writer
Selflessness, discipline, and competitive energy.
Those were the values that FIU head basketball coach Jeremy Ballard preached after the team’s big win over Rice University , in a Valentine’s Day match-up at the Ocean Bank Convocation Center on Thursday evening.
Both teams entered the game with identical conference records of 5-7, aiming to improve on that for a chance at higher seeding in the eventual conference tournament.
A moment of silence was held at the arena before the game’s start to commemorate the lives lost during the tragic incident that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School exactly one year prior.
“We [came] in here with tie records,” said Ballard. “I think our guys really had a chip on their shoulder to come out and compete and try to get after them, and we did.”
FIU came out and immediately set the tone defensively, swarming the opposition with suffocating defense and allowing Rice very little separation to operate offensively.
Forward Osasumwen Osaghae had a fiery block on Rice guard Chris Mullens merely 20 seconds into the game, foreshadowing what would become a six-block night for the Panthers’ rim protector.
On the very next play FIU guard Isaiah Banks picked the pocket of Rice guard Ako Adams and took it the other way for a fast break dunk.
The ensuing Rice possession was déjà vu as FIU guard Antonio Daye repeated the same play off of Mullens and sped down the court for an easy layup.
In the first half alone FIU racked up eight steals and four blocks, while forcing 15 Rice turnovers.
After the game Ballard talked about the strong defensive start and how meaningful it was.
“It was awesome to set that tone, and it was a great lesson to the guys.” he said. “We didn’t get those numbers from gambling and being undisciplined defensively. This is the most disciplined we’ve actually been all year on the defensive end. We guarded the ball, we helped, we had good rotations, we talked.”
Rice shot 37.9 percent from the field in the first half and was a putrid 0-for-8 on 3-point attempts.
FIU entered the locker room up 42-29 at the intermission as forward Devon Andrews led the way with 13 points.
The second period offered improvements by Rice as they shot a much more efficient 52 percent on their field goal attempts, including 60 percent beyond the arc.
With 7:12 reaming the Owls were able to trim the Panthers’ lead to eight points, but the Panthers remained resilient and finished the game strongly on a 22-9 run.
Ballard praised the leadership of senior point guard Brian Beard, Jr., crediting him with organizing the team and keeping them competitively focused.
“Make no mistake about it. It wasn’t my timeout or anything I said. It was the presence of these guys on the floor. Brian [Beard, Jr.] talking, huddling these guys up,” said Ballard. “These guys being receptive, and we were able to finish the game on a positive note.”
Points off turnovers fueled the Panther’s success on the night as they forced 33 takeaways and converted them into 38 points.
FIU combined for a total of 18 steals and 7 blocks, while utilizing their fast break for a damaging 24 points.
Andrews finished with 25 points, one shy of a career high, on 62 percent shooting for FIU.
Forward Quentin Millora-Brown led the Owls with 13 points on a highly efficient 78 percent shooting, while also grabbing a game high 16 rebounds.
Coming off two straight conference losses during the season’s final stretch, which has the ability to deflate certain teams, the Panthers showed the type of focus and competitive desire they will require in order to survive in the conference tournament.
“These guys took it upon themselves the last two days coming back from [El Paso, Texas] to really get after it in practice,” Ballard said. “It was really sparked by our senior leader [Beard, Jr.]. He really took it upon himself to make sure everybody was going to compete in practice, and we competed in the game today. [It was] one of our best 40 minutes that we’ve had all year long.”
Having only trailed for a total of 34 seconds in the 86-65 victory, Ballard was not just spewing motivational speak.
“I’m just really proud of the guys. The leadership and toughness that they showed, I’m proud of them,” said Ballard . “That kind of spirit and positive energy and unselfishness is what allowed us to get a win tonight.”
Featured image by Christian Almanza/PantherNOW