Men’s basketball looks to win third consecutive game against Liberty

Junior forward Mohamed Sang delivering a powerful and fierce slam-dunk. Photo courtesy of FIU Athletics.

Jaymz Cosme | Staff Writer

The FIU men’s basketball team looks to open up a win streak as they face off with the Liberty Flames on Thursday Jan. 18, 2024, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Entering this matchup, the Panthers hold a 7-11 record and are coming off back-to-back wins over their two most recent games. In their most recent game against the UTEP Miners on Saturday, Jan. 13, they took a 72-68 victory after trailing early on.

Vs. UTEP:

Staging a late-game comeback, FIU erased a 16-point deficit over the final eight minutes of the game. After trailing by only six points at halftime, they struggled to score coming out of the half and trailed 62-46 with 8:46 remaining.

Senior guard Javaunte Hawkins ignited the turnaround with a 3-pointer and set the stage for a remarkable 26-6 run to close out the game. Once the lead was cut to nine, they continued applying two-way pressure and scored 15 of the game’s final 17-points.

Beyond the momentum-swinging 3-pointer from Hawkins, sophomore guard Dashon Gittens also played a pivotal role in the comeback. Late into the contest, he delivered two clutch free throws that tied the game at 68-68. 

Following a forced turnover and a quick timeout, FIU executed a set play emerging from the huddle. After receiving a pass from junior forward Mohamed Sanogo, Gittens found his way to the basket and scored on a layup.

With the score at 70-68, the Miners had an opportunity to tie the game on their final possession, but sophomore guard Arturo Dean foiled their plans. He secured a timely  steal with four seconds remaining and found junior guard Jaidon Lipscomb for a fastbreak score.

Fueled by an all-around team contribution, the Panthers took their first win over the UTEP since January of 2020. Since that time, FIU had lost five consecutive games against them and reached their first victory in nearly four years in this game.

 “Our guys show so much character, so much fight and they’ve been showing it all season long,” said head coach Jeremy Ballard.

Multiple players scored in double-figures, with Hawkins leading the team with 20-points. Outside of his high-scoring contribution, he also made four of his six 3-point attempts and collected two steals. 

Only one point shy of Hawkins’ total, Gittens also made a significant two-way impact, as he finished with 19-points, four steals and four rebounds. Sanogo also made an impact in his 21-minutes off the bench, as he finished with 12-points and six rebounds.

As a team, the Panthers out-rebounded UTEP 25-24 and maintained a 7-3 advantage on the offensive glass. Through applying on-ball pressure, they forced the Miners into  25-turnovers, which resulted in a total of 15-steals.

Rallying to a victory in the second half, FIU looks to carry their momentum into their next game against the Liberty Flames and open up a three game win streak.

Vs. Liberty: 

Coming into this matchup, Liberty bolsters a 11-7 record and are coming off a 80-76 overtime loss to the LA Tech Bulldogs on Sunday, Jan. 14. Despite a 20-point game from senior forward Kyle Rode, it wasn’t enough to push them to victory. 

Unable to hold off their opponent, the Flames lost their third consecutive game and remained winless against Conference USA opponents. Prior to their losing streak, they won four out of five games against non-conference opponents.

All three of Liberty’s conference losses are defined by their struggle on offense, as they’ve failed to score above 70-points in regulation in each game. Shooting accuracy has come at a premium, as they’ve shot 34% from the field and 20% from 3-point distance during that stretch.

If FIU wants to open up a legitimate win streak, they need to ride Hawkins’ hot hand, as he has been their leading scorer over the past five games. Coming off his fifth 20-point performance of the year, he has proved to be one of the team’s reliable offensive options.

However, Hawkins cannot win the game alone and the remainder of the team needs to limit their mistakes and balance their offensive approach. According to the Flames’ offensive trends, the Panthers can leave victorious if they have an average night on offense.

“Take it one game at a time,” said coach Ballard when asked about their upcoming game and back-to-back wins. 

Focused on the task at hand, the FIU men’s basketball team is traveling to Lynchburg, Virginia to face off with the Liberty Flames on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Tip off is set for 7 p.m. at Liberty Arena and the game will be broadcasted on ESPN+.

Prediction: 

FIU: 78

Liberty: 68

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