Men’s Basketball Faces C-USA Rival FAU in Bonus Play Matchup

FIU guard Willy Nunez Jr. prepping himself for the game. Photo by Brea Jones/PantherNOW

Written by Zoe Chin/Sports Director

The Panthers faced Florida Atlantic University for the third time this season to settle an ongoing rivalry.

Having the opportunity to play against FAU for the third time in a season is a unique opportunity, according to the men’s head basketball coach Jeremy Ballard.

“This is a really unique situation, playing a team for a third time in a regular season,” said Ballard. “[FAU] is a very good team, they’re extremely well coached and they’re having a great season.”

FAU, just like FIU, is 16-11 in their season and 7-7 in their conference. As a team, they have averaged 7.1.6 points per game and 39.9 average rebounds per game, according to an updated stat sheet from ESPN.

For the Panthers, this is an opportunity to get into the National Invitational Tournament and make their overall 16-11 record better.

FIU’s first match was against university rival on Saturday, Feb. 23.

The Panthers faced off against the Owls twice in the season already (1-1). They won against the Owls in a four-point close game (78-74) on FAU territory. But, in their second game, the Panthers lost to FAU (72-89) on Panther territory.

“We’re excited to have a chance to make up for our last game where they beat us on our home court,” said Ballard.

When the Panthers faced against the Owls on Saturday, Jan. 26, it looked like the Panthers were aiming to win the game and show their Panther pride.

They were leading in the first half, but that changed right before the second half. FAU took the lead right before the second-half started and extended it until the buzzer.

The Panthers lost their second game to the Owls on home turf.

“We know that we’re going to have to play a lot better than we played in either of the previous games to beat them on their home court,” said Ballard. “We got to go in there and we got to play smart and efficiently on offense and we got to smart and tough on defense as well.”

Besides FAU, the Panthers will also face Louisiana Tech University, Marshall University and North Texas University.

The purpose of ‘bonus play’ is to give collegiate teams opportunities to improve their overall play record. The matchups are based on teams with similar standings in the conference.

The Panthers will play against Louisiana Tech on Sunday, March 3 on FIU territory at 12 p.m. at the Ocean Bank Convocation Center.

In the conference, the Panthers are  7-7 as of Feb. 22. Having been stuck in neutral, this bonus play can either help or hurt the team. If they lose their four bonus plays, it goes against them but winning even two of them will be a big help for them.

The Panthers are ranked as number one in the number of steals per game, averaging 10.74 steals per game. They also rank number nine in the number of points per game, averaging 84.2 points per game.

“Our main goal as soon as we got here and it’s still our main goal at the end of the day,” said Ballard. “Is to build a kind of culture that will allow us to sustain success and we’re fighting for that culture every day”.

This is Ballard’s first year coaching for the men’s basketball team. Being able to be the head basketball coach for FIU has been a “dream come true,” according to Ballard.

During their basketball practice on Thursday, he showed his players tough love and encouraged them to try their best even during practice. As a coach, Ballard took time to talk to his players to about any mistakes they make on the court and how to improve their own play styles.

“Our guys have come a long way, they know how to move forward on the court and off the court,” said Ballard about his team.“I’m proud of that.”

In the Panthers’ last season, they were 14-18 in their overall record when being coached by Anthony Evans and in the season before that, the team had an overall record of 7-24.

Evans was replaced by Ballard, who has looked to improve the basketball team’s record and bring the team back up. Now, Ballard believes that the men’s basketball team are approaching their best season yet.

For the players, they have grown fond of Ballard and are proud to have him as their coach.

“We got a whole new staff this year and I love it,” said shooting guard Willy Nunez Jr. “We have all grown into a little family.”

Nunez Jr. has been playing basketball since he was five-years old with a dream of one day being able to play overseas on a professional basketball team. Being able to play on a college team has been an experience for him, according to Nunez.

“It helps you grow as a person as a whole,” said Nunez.“[And] preparing you for the real world.”

In this season, Nunez has a 2.4 rebound per game average and a 10.6 points per game average, 64 rebounds made, and 24 assists. The redshirt junior has played a total of 599 minutes in the season, according to ESPN. The redshirt junior has played in 26 games and started in nine of them.

Nunez feels that the team has played intensely throughout the whole season. He has confidence that by working together, the team will not only win their bonus plays, but will also qualify for the NIT and the collegiate basketball tournament, March Madness.

Current FIU students enter the game for free. FIU alumni and non-FIU associates can get tickets at www.fiusports.com at a discounted price by using the code, ‘GoPanthers’.

For a recap of the FIU versus FAU game go to https://panthernow.com/

 

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