The Sun Belt Conference basketball tournaments are played in Arkansas. They start Saturday for FIU’s teams with games against teams from Arkansas. But if you’re talking about winning the Sun Belt tournament for an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, Arkansas doesn’t loom as large as Tennessee.
Specifically, Middle Tennessee State, which brings the top-seeded team in each gender to Hot Springs, Ark. Should FIU’s men get past Arkansas-Little Rock and/or FIU’s women defeat Arkansas State in Saturday’s games, Middle Tennessee likely awaits. In each case, the Blue Raiders play Saturday against winners from Friday games that amount to play-in games.
And if anybody can stop Middle Tennessee from sweeping the Sun Belt, it’s FIU. The women’s team dealt Middle Tennessee the first of only three conference losses, 58-51, and did so in Murfreesboro, Tenn. In the rematch, lacking 6-3 Diamond Ashmore and 6-1 Finda Mansare, FIU couldn’t stop the Blue Raiders inside defensively and blew several easy shots on offense in a 61-51 loss.
The men got swept, although the home loss to Middle Tennessee left everyone shocked. FIU led by 20 in the first half, 17 at halftime and lost on a shot at the buzzer by Hialeah High graduate Sean Jones.
But as FIU men’s coach Richard Pitino said, “We’re only focused on Little Rock. Sunday and Monday aren’t promised if you don’t get past Saturday.”
Obviously, that applies to the FIU women, too. The Panthers have this season’s Sun Belt Player of the Year (last season’s, too), junior guard Jerica Coley, and a third-team All-Sun Belt player in forward Marita Davydova. Yet, based on regular-season play, the men, with only first-teamer Tymell Murphy among the All-Sun Belt picks, seem to have the better shot at advancing.
The women lost both games to Arkansas State, which leads the conference in field-goal percentage (.437) and is third in field-goal percentage defense (.393 allowed). In those games, FIU, one of the nation’s best free-throw shooting teams, got to the line only 15 times.
FIU is second in the field-goal defense (.392 allowed) and FIU women’s coach Cindy Russo said guard Kamika Idom should return from her knee injury.
The men split with Arkansas-Little Rock. On the road, Little Rock outscored FIU 42-18 in the paint. In South Florida, FIU came up with 14 steals and 25 points off turnovers.
“At their place, they killed us with their passing,” Pitino said. “We did a much better job on that in the second game. I’m sure they’re happy with the game they won and we’re happy with the game we won.”
Pitino thought FIU got “out-toughed” in a blowout loss to FAU last Saturday. That loss put an acid taste on FIU’s first winning season since 1999-2000.
“Absolutely,” Pitino said when asked if the season already was a success. “We were picked to be 10th in the conference; we finished fourth.”
Pitino pointed out the circumstances setting the scene for FIU’s season: three scholarship players remaining, having to rapidly collect the rest of the roster and getting them to devote a high energy effort each night. In FIU’s last year in the Sun Belt, the Panthers put up a school record 11 conference wins.
“Now, we’ll see how far that can still take us.”