A game after showing it had learned how to close out a close game late, FIU showed it has learned how to keep a blowout from getting close. FAU reaped the benefits of that knowledge Thursday night at U.S. Century Bank Arena.
The Panthers raced to a 20-point halftime lead, then slapped down a brief FAU run with some timely three-point plays and coolly ran out an 84-65 rout in front of 1,532, the largest home crowd of the season.
That crowd, which included former FIU football stars T.Y. Hilton, Antwan Barnes and Anthony Gaitor, watched FIU improve to 13-10 overall, 8-6 in the Sun Belt Conference. Three more victories clinch a winning regular-season record for the Panthers. FAU fell to 11-14, 6-8 in the conference.
FIU junior guard Malik Smith, FAU senior guard Greg Gantt and senior forward Jordan McCoy led all scorers with 19 points. Smith (6 for 14) and McCoy (9 for 14) shot more efficiently than Gantt (7 for 21), who is seventh in the nation in scoring with a 21.1 average.
That 33.3 overall shooting percentage by Gantt included going 2 for 10 from three-point range, part of a 5-for-22 night by the Sun Belts best three-point shooting team. FIU turned what looked like a matchup nightmare the Panthers rank last in three-point defense in Sun Belt games into the bricks upon which it built a victory.
We just tried to chase them off, FIU junior forward Tymell Murphy said. We know Gantt can get hot. Their other players can get hot if we let them. We just tried to chase them off the three-point line and let them see a hand in their face every time they touched the ball near the three-point line.
And at halftime, after FIU blew out to a 49-28 lead in a blizzard of dunks and fast-break layups off steals and rebounds, the players again discussed what happened last week against Middle Tennessee State. A 20-point first-half lead dissolved into a loss on a shot at the horn.
On Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe, FIU pulled out a game decided on the last possessions, correcting some of the final-minute flubs from the loss to Middle Tennessee and a loss at South Alabama. On Thursday, the Panthers rectified the second-half problems that allowed Middle Tennessee back into the game.
Last time we had a big lead against Middle Tennessee, we had problems defending in the second half, senior guard Cameron Bell said. During halftime, Coach [Richard Pitino] just told us to defend and rebound to keep this lead.
Murphy, who had nine rebounds and six steals, said: We also wanted to stay aggressive on offense. Sometimes our offense is a little standstill.
A 6-0 FAU run to open the second half was halted by Murphy, who is developing a habit of doing that. Murphy drove the left side of the lane, threw in a shot off the glass over Andre Mattison and drew a foul. The ensuing free throw put FIU up 52-34 with 18:10 left.
A layup by McCoy got FIUs lead down to 56-43 with 14:46 left. FIUs offense looked stagnant enough that a comeback seemed possible. But the Panthers shook themselves out of it with an effort possession.
Smith missed a three-pointer. Tola Akomolafe rebounded. Akomolafe missed a three. Freshman forward Jerome Frink rebounded. Murphy missed. Akomolafe rebounded. Finally, a trip down the floor that lasted 51 seconds ended with a Smith three-pointer, making it 59-43.
Two possessions later, Bell drew another Mattison foul while getting a layup. The free throw restored FIUs lead to 19 points at 62-43. FIU regained offensive crispness and maintained defensive energy.