The first home game of the coaching era of Richard Pitino was sobering for FIU fans, who saw their Panthers fall behind quickly and lose to Stephen F. Austin 69-60 on Saturday afternoon.
FIU, which won at SFA last season, trailed by 16 points at halftime on Saturday and didn’t get closer than 12 until the final eight seconds.
The Panthers (0-2) did not make any players available to speak to the media after the game, but Pitino let it be known he was not happy.
“I’m very disappointed in our defense,” Pitino said. “[SFA] shot 60 percent [59.6], and you can’t try to outscore teams, especially a team that was as good defensively as they were.”
SFA (2-0) outscored FIU in the paint 42-26 and held the Panthers to 35.7 percent shooting, including just 25.8 percent in the first half.
Then again, the Lumberjacks, who went 20-12 last season, pride themselves on defense and have now held 35 consecutive opponents to under 70 points. In fact, SFA and Wisconsin are the only two Division I programs in the country to be ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense in each of the past five seasons.
“The thing that I was bothered by in the beginning was that I thought some of our guys were scared of their pressure in the half court,” Pitino said. “The way you beat pressure is you attack it. If you back up, that’s when you turn the ball over 16 times.”
FIU’s performance at home was a slight surprise if only because the Panthers had played an ACC opponent, Boston College, reasonably tough on the road in their opener last week, an 84-70 loss.
That result provided hope that perhaps Pitino could create a first-season resurgence of sorts.
That is still possible, of course — the season has only just begun — but the Lumberjacks showed just how far FIU has to go to turn around a program that got previous coach Isiah Thomas fired after he delivered a three-year record of 26-65.
FIU went 8-21 overall last season, 2-9 at home, and its five starters from that team are all gone. The leading returning scorer averaged just four points last season.
In came Pitino, 30, who had been an assistant at Northeastern, Duquesne, Florida and Louisville, where he served under his father, Rick. But Rick Pitino, who has a summer home in Miami, initially tried to dissuade his son from taking the FIU job.
Pitino came anyway, hiring a staff that includes former Monsignor Pace coach Mark Lieberman. The new FIU coaches brought in several new recruits, including four who won’t be eligible until the fall of 2013 — Rakeem Buckles, Raymond Taylor, Dennis Mavin and Cody Mann.
But that’s next season.
For now, this is the group FIU has as it travels to Coastal Carolina next Saturday for its next game. The team returns home Nov. 29 for its Sun Belt Conference opener against Arkansas State.
Although perhaps undermanned this season, Pitino has tried to create an identity for FIU’s new brand of basketball.
“I try not to worry too much about the offense,” Pitino said. “We’ve got a young team. We’ve got to do a better job and not worry about anything else except for defense and rebounding. Let the offense come to us.”
Forward Jerome Frink, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds against Boston College, was held to five points and seven rebounds against the Lumberjacks.
Forward Tymell Murphy led FIU with 17 points, and guard Malik Smith added 16.
In two games, Smith has made 7 of 17 attempts from three-point range.
“I don’t think we played well in either game,” Pitino said. “We’ve got a lot to work on.”