Either you learn from heartbreak or you’ll suffer it over and over again. FIU men’s basketball team showed behavior modification in Saturday night’s 76-73 win against Louisiana-Monroe at U.S. Century Bank Arena.
In both last week’s losses — to South Alabama and Thursday’s buzzer loss to Middle Tennessee State after holding a 20-point lead — FIU led earlier in the game then made a number of second-half mental mistakes that propelled them down the lonely road of defeat. Among the many things Thursday that angered FIU coach Rick Pitino was Malik Smith, one of the Sun Belt’s best three-point shooters, jacking up threes in transition with FIU well ahead instead of taking the ball to the basket.
“That was definitely in my mind,” Smith said. “I did not want to hear those screams after the game.”
Saturday, with FIU down 73-71 and 20.0 seconds left, Smith drove off the right wing for a double-pump layup and drew the foul on ULM’s Amos Olatayo. Olatayo would leave the court in tears after the game, his 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting and eight rebounds not enough. Smith sank the free throw to put FIU up 74-73.
“The play was originally set up for me to come off the screen and shoot the three,” said Smith, FIU’s leading scorer with 17 points. “But I knew if I shot-faked, they would bite on the pump fake. So, I just tried to attack the rim and was fortunate enough to get fouled and make the free throw.”
As ULM brought the ball back up for a last possession, sophomore Deric Hill buzzed ULM’s R.J. McCray and made his sixth steal of the game. The 5-9 Hill charged for the hole and drew a foul on Millaun Brown with 7.9 seconds left.
Hill sank one of two free throws. Though this left ULM hope with 7.9 seconds left, Jayon James’ desperate three-pointer fell shorter of the hoop than he did from a triple double: 11 points, 15 assists, nine rebounds.
FIU (12-10, 7-6 Sun Belt) spread its scoring even better than usual with four players in double-figures: Smith, Tymell Murphy (14), Jerome Frink (13) and Marco Porcher Jimenez (10).
But the key numbers for FIU are always defensive — 25 turnovers forced, 18 steals made, 33 points off turnovers. Also, FIU played seven players at least 14 minutes with Smith getting the most at 35. ULM played James, Olatayo and Trent Mackey (21 points) 40 minutes each.
Right from the start, while FIU couldn’t shake ULM, it was apparent the Panthers didn’t have a hangover from what could have been a crushing, season-turning loss to Middle Tennessee.
“That’s pretty much all we talked about,” Smith said. “How Louisville, they lost to Syracuse and they followed with two losses in a row. We didn’t want to go down that same path.”
Pitino said, “I was concerned as a coaching staff because you think you’re going to have a letdown. I thought at shootaround [Saturday], those guys were so focused and so hungry to show people we are a good team. And we’re not just kind of a flash in the pan.”