In Thursday night’s game at U.S. Century Bank Arena, the Sun Belt’s best team trumped the Sun Belt’s best player in a big, bad way.
Defending Sun Belt champion Middle Tennessee State (16-5, 11-1 Sun Belt) avenged its only conference loss of the season by pulling away from short-handed FIU late in the first half and early in the second, then coasting to a 61-51 victory.
“We didn’t play very good defense, and we weren’t scoring,” FIU junior guard Jerica Coley said in describing how the game went from 15-15 with 9:51 left in the first half to 38-22 just 2:42 into the second half. “We had some good looks, and we didn’t make it. They had some easy looks, and they made them.”
Coley, the nation’s leading scorer and last season’s Sun Belt Player of the Year, managed a team-high 19 points while playing only 35 minutes. Yes, “only.” Coley came into the game having sat for all of seven of the 445 minutes FIU had played this season. The last time she played less than she played Thursday, it was only one minute less, in December 2011 … against Middle Tennessee State.
In December, when FIU (13-8, 7-5) beat Middle Tennessee, the Panthers outrebounded the Blue Raiders 42-32 and held Middle Tennessee to 51 points. But while Middle Tennessee brought everybody to Thursday’s rumble — not a bad word for the physical nature of the game — FIU was missing sophomore guard Kamika Idom (knee), senior forward Diamond Ashmore (knee) and senior forward Finda Mansare (concussion).
“They’re our big people, and [Middle Tennessee] played defense and they rebounded well,” Coley said. “We could’ve won this game, too. We just didn’t play as good on defense as we did [in December].”
Once Mansare got concussed against Louisiana-Lafayette, sophomore Tynia McKinzie, who had played two minutes in the season’s first 18 games, began playing starter’s minutes. McKinzie grabbed five rebounds in 33 minutes Thursday and was FIU’s only other double-digit scorer with 10 points.
Middle Tennessee got a game-high 23 points and nine rebounds from Ebony Rowe and seven assists from Kortni Jones.