By most standards, Richard Pitino’s rookie season as a FIU head coach is already a success.
FIU assured itself of its first-winning regular season since 2000 with a 65-52 victory over the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in a Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball game Thursday night.
FIU (15-12, 10-8) also improved to 10-3 at home, marking their best record inside their arena since they finished 1998 at 13-0.
By way of contrast, FIU went just 2-9 at home last season en route to an overall record of 8-21 under previous coach Isiah Thomas.
FIU’s 10 conference wins so far this season also sets a school record.
“This team has been so fun to coach,” Pitino said. “There are no egos on this team, and they love to practice. We were picked second-to-last in the conference, and we assembled this team in three or four weeks. It’s all a credit to them.”
In the earlier game on campus, FIU’s women’s team, led the nation’s leading scorer Jerica Coley, who had 28 points, fell to UALR 51-47.
FIU (17-10, 11-7) had its four-game winning streak snapped while the Trojans (19-7, 11-6) won their eighth straight game.
Coley, a 5-8 junior guard, came in averaging 25.9 points. Against the Trojans, she recorded her 25th consecutive double-digit scoring game, making 11 of 34 shots from the field and 4 of 5 on the foul line. She was 2 of 9 on three-pointers.
The Trojans led by as many as 17 points in the second half and were up by 46-33 with 2:39 left before FIU rallied.
After that, Coley scored FIU’s final 14 points, including both of her three-pointers. The Panthers got as close as 48-45 with 32 seconds left before two Trojans free throws iced the game.
“I think I rushed my shot [early in the game],” Coley said.
The game marked the final home game for FIU seniors Diamond Ashmore, Finda Mansare and Carmen Miloglav, all of whom started on Thursday. Ashmore had 6 points, Mansare had 0 points but 6 rebounds, and Miloglav added 2 points and 6 assists. For the men’s team, it was the final home win for seniors Cameron Bell, Gaby Belardo, Tola Akomolafe and Manuel Nunez, none of whom started on Thursday.
Pitino was pleased with the rowdy crowd that showed up for Senior Night.
“Whenever you rebuild a program, it starts with players, but then you have to build a fan base,” Pitino said. “I was told that no one is going to come, ‘they don’t care about basketball.’ But my response is that they’ve never won, they’ve never played at the level I’m hoping to play.”
Thursday’s win also allowed the Panthers to avenge a 12-point loss suffered last month at the Trojans (15-13, 9-8).
Bell, who had game highs with 17 points and 8 rebounds, reflected on his career at FIU.
“There were ups and downs, certainly with Isiah getting fired,” he said. “It’s been a long road, but we’ve had a great season under Coach Pitino.”
Thursday’s games ended with a bit of comedic flair as Nunez, a seldom-used reserve who had the fans chanting his name nearly the entire night, finally got the call from Pitino in the final minute.
Nunez took one shot — a three-pointer that missed everything.
Pitino said he was glad he could get Nunez in the game.
“Everybody loves him,” Pitino said. “I was hoping he could hit the rim, although he claims he was fouled. I’ll have to see the film.”