Written by Christian Almanza/Contributing Writer
It was not easy. It required resiliency and resolve.
After a hard-fought battle, the FIU men’s basketball team found a way to win an important road matchup against their local rival on Saturday, Feb. 23 on FAU territory with a final score of 79-76.
The Panthers faced off against the Owls for the third time this year in front of an intense and energized opposing crowd, for the first of four remaining regular season games against conference opponents.
Coming off a two-game win streak and one of their most complete performances of the season against North Texas, the Panthers struggled at times against the Owls and fought through adversity during an up-and-down second half.
“A real gut check win. Anytime you play your rival on their homecourt, it’s going to be a battle.” said FIU head coach Jeremy Ballard, “It’s going to be a 40-minute battle. It’s going to be a game of runs, highs and lows.”
The first half featured one of the best 20-minute performances by the Panthers this season as they busted open a 16-point lead while forcing 11 FAU turnovers and holding the Owls to 25 percent shooting.
Coach Ballard praised the defensive intensity in the first half.
“I told the team I was extremely proud of them, because the first 20 minutes is FIU basketball and what we’ve got to be all about,” he said after the game.
FIU struggled from beyond the arc in the first period as they shot an icy cold 11.1 percent on nine attempts but probed into the painted area with ease as they scored 28 of their 38 points inside the key.
Freshman guard Antonio Daye, Jr. led the way for the Panthers with 13 points on a super-efficient 6-for-7 shooting in the first half.
Up by a score of 38-26 entering the second period, the Panthers emerged from the locker room flat and watched as FAU captured the momentum and swallowed the lead.
“We knew they were going to fight back.” said Daye, Jr. “We knew they weren’t just going to let us smack them and lay down. Our coaches just kept telling us to stay after it, and just keep pushing it.”
FIU continued their shooting woes from long distance as they missed their first five 3-pointers of the half, while also failing to penetrate the paint as efficiently as they did in the first period.
The Owls came soaring back on a furious 19-6 run to go up by a score of 45-44, taking their first lead of the game with 11 minutes left to play.
Inside the arena the momentum shift was palpable as every Owl bucket injected more life into the home crowd and intensified the sound decibel level.
“I like playing on the road. I love the crowd that they bring.” said senior guard Brian Beard, Jr. “Everybody’s talking to you, they’re screaming your name. In disgust, really. But I love to show up in big moments, and you guys know I like to make big shots.”
With six minutes left to play the Owls led by eight points, their largest of the game.
That is when the Panthers’ backcourt took over, as Beard and Daye would combine for FIU’s final 21 points.
“The backcourt play, those guys are really feeding off each other.” said coach Ballard. “They are really blossoming with their chemistry out there on the court together. And everyone is feeding off of that.”
The breaking point for FAU arrived when Beard, Jr. buried a dramatic three-pointer with the game tied at 63-63 and got fouled on the attempt resulting in a four-point play.
Beard, Jr. fell to the ground and watched as the long-ball banked in, smiling and pumping his fists in celebration.
“Right before that when we took the ball out, I told [Antonio Daye, Jr.] I’m going to make the next three that I take. The shot clock is running down, I felt them on my hip, and I just shot it with confidence and banked it in.”
The Panthers would take a 67-63 lead and retain it the rest of the way.
FIU’s senior leader managed to affect the game in a multitude of ways despite shooting a poor 4-of-18 from the field. He accounted for an impressive six steals, six assists, and five rebounds.
“He has so much composure.” said Daye when talking about Beard after the game, “And even when he’s 0-for-5, 0-for-10 or whatever, he’s still going to shoot the next shot and he’s going to have his confidence with it. He’s going to lead us, talking and just being positive. I’ve never seen him down when he has a bad game.”
Beard, Jr. also knocked down six consecutive shots from the charity stripe to stave off an FAU comeback attempt in the closing seconds.
“That’s what seniors do.” said coach Ballard, “He makes that humongous four-point play. He makes those free throws down the stretch to seal it for us. That’s what senior winners do.”
Daye, Jr. finished with a career-high 22 points. It can be said that Antonio had quite the Daye. Pun intended.
The win improves FIU’s record to 17-11, which holds extra special meaning as it secures the first winning season for the men’s basketball team since 2012-13.
With three games left in the conference’s brand-new bonus play format, there stands to be more challenges in the way for the Panthers. Their performance during this critical stretch will decide FIU’s seeding within the imminent Conference USA tournament.
Coach Ballard expects his team to set the tone for the upcoming games in practice.
“I told the guys going into today, we have four games left. And we want to go 1-and-0 in each game.” said Ballard, “One game at a time. But in order to go 1-and-0 in each of those games, we have to go 1-and-0 every day.”