It’s Intrastate Night for FIU’s basketball teams Thursday, both of which want to build momentum off bounce-back wins in their last games.
That might be a little harder for the women’s team in its turnpike tussle with Central Florida on Thursday evening at U.S. Century Bank Arena. Only practices and the finish of finals filled the 12 days since their last game, a Dec. 1 win against South Florida.
Just as well there were no more games during finals. FIU coach Cindy Russo put some blame for a flat performance against previously winless Arkansas State two days before the South Florida game on there being virtually two weeks of finals. Games without classes counts as a bigger break for FIU, which plays four of its five starters more than 30 minutes a game, led by junior guard Jerica Coley’s 39.3 minutes per game. Sophomore Zsofia Labady, the fifth starter, averages 29.0 minutes.
(Just for immediate contrast, two UCF starters average more than 30 minutes, one averages more than 25 minutes and the other two play more than 20 minutes.)
Coley’s having another fantastic season, leading the Panthers in scoring (19.7 points per game), rebounding (8.0 per game), blocks (18) and steals (14). But she’s also FIU’s only three-point threat, 12 of 38 on threes while the rest of the team is 9 of 43.
Saturday’s home game against Dartmouth and a Dec. 20 trip to Sun Belt conference preseason favorite Middle Tennessee State precede another extended break, nine days, before the FIU Sun & Fun Classic.
The men’s team makes a day trip across Interstate 75 to Florida Gulf Coast for a game that could feature enough turnovers to keep Hostess in business. The two teams average a combined 19.2 steals and 34.0 turnovers per game.
Yet, it’s FIU’s defense that still leaves coach Richard Pitino dissatisfied, which is why that got much of the during over the 12 days interrupted only by Sunday’s 92-89 win at Stetson. Junior guard Malik Smith poured in 29 points after he hurt his back in pregame so badly, coaches weren’t sure he’d be able to play at all.
“Offensively, we do a lot of nice things,” Pitino said. “But on any given day, defense can shut your offense down. Then, what are you going to do?”
Pitino pointed out that FIU leads the Sun Belt in scoring (74.5 points per game) while being second in field goal percentage (44.5), but ranks last in field goal percentage defense (48.2). FIU’s also last in rebounding, but does lead the conference in steals.
“When teams are shooting above 43 percent against you, you’re not playing good enough defense,” Pitino said. “Guarding the ball has been the biggest issue. We’ve just got to contain it better. When guys go by you, then you have to start rotating and it’s not a good thing.”
After Thursday, FIU’s got plenty of time to prepare for next Wednesday’s trip to No. 6 Louisville, coached by Rick Pitino Sr.