FIU coach Rick Pitino figured Middle Tennessee State would make a second-half run after the Panthers led by 17 at halftime Thursday at U.S. Century Bank Arena.
And the Blue Raiders did.
Pitino figured Middle Tennessee, inbounding the ball with nine-tenths of a second left and the game tied, would run a sort of alley-oop, one-touch jumper to Hialeah High graduate Shawn Jones.
And it did.
Jones, based on practice, didn’t know if the play would work. It did. And so FIU did lose 66-64 after holding a 20-point, first-half lead.
“We knew the play,” Pitino said. “They’ve just got taller, more athletic people than we do.”
The 6-8 Jones cut into the lane, then rose above 6-9 FIU freshman Jerome Frink to cradle the ball for a blink before sending it at the hoop from about 10 feet.
As the ball settled in, the only sound in the arena came from the Middle Tennessee contingent, which included Jones’ family, high school friends and coaches.
“When Coach [Kermit] Davis made the call, it was funny because I never converted the play,” Jones said. “That was the first time I actually converted that play. So, good screen from Raymond Cintron and good pass from Bruce Massey. I just made a play on the ball.”
FIU dropped to 11-10 overall and 6-6 in the Sun Belt. Middle Tennessee improved to 19-4, 11-1 in the conference.
“They’re a very good team,” Pitino said. “We knew they’d come back.”
The shooting numbers tell the difference in the two halves. Not the free throw shooting, a borderline embarrassment for both teams: FIU was 9 of 15; Middle Tennessee went 10 of 19.
But the field goal shooting percentages summarized the game well.
In the first half, the Panthers shot 46.7 percent from the field and 60 percent from three-point range.
That will leave most teams far up the track, even more so when the trailing team gets held to 26.9 percent shooting and forced into 13 turnovers.
The second half saw Middle Tennessee shoot 63.7 percent from the field, including a perfect 5 for 5 on three-pointers, and get forced into only six turnovers. Meanwhile, FIU shot three-pointers half as well, at 30 percent, as part of 37.5 percent shooting in the second 20 minutes.
Or, as Pitino said: “We played defense in the first half; we didn’t play defense in the second half.”
Also, FIU kept swinging for the way-behind-the-arc knockout shots that landed in the first half, but the ones that usually aren’t reliable enough to stay with for an entire game.
“Malik [Smith] shot a three in transition that was ridiculous, and Marco [Porchez Jimenez] shot a three in transition that was ridiculous,” Pitino said. “And we’ve addressed that over the last week. We really worked on that, [playing] with time and score. They didn’t learn the lesson, apparently.”