HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- The FIU Panthers advanced to the finals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament Sunday with a 61-57 victory over top-seeded Middle Tennessee State.
The fourth-seeded Panthers will play the winner of the Arkansas State-Western Kentucky game, which was the late game Sunday. The finals winner is guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The game will be televised at 7 p.m. Monday on ESPN.
After leading most of the game, the Panthers (18-13) were holding onto a 57-53 lead when sophomore guard Deric Hill hit a driving layup with the shot clock winding down and with 12 seconds left in the game.
The Raiders’ Marcos Knight — a Sun Belt all-first team guard — responded by driving the length of the court to cut the lead back to 59-57 with eight seconds remaining. But FIU’s Malik Smith iced it at the line, making two free throws with seven seconds left.
That was a fitting end, as the Panthers won the game from the charity stripe. FIU went 18-22 (82 percent) from the line, while Middle Tennessee shot just 12-21 (57 percent). Hill, who led the Panthers with 16 points, shot 10-of-11 from the line.
“Deric Hill, Malik Smith and Cameron Bell, that’s in their disposition,” first-year FIU coach Richard Pitino said. “They’re always that way. They never get rattled. Sometimes I’m on the sideline acting like a lunatic. They really do calm me down.
“You know, Malik Smith, when he stepped up to the line, I really didn’t have any doubt he was going to make those two free throws. I was more thinking about what defense we needed to get in.”
FIU led 33-24 at the half after holding Knight to three points on 1-of-7 shooting. Knight finished with 13 points. In fact, the Blue Raiders as a team made only eight field goals the entire first half.
The Blue Raiders (28-5), bigger at just about every position and deeper off the bench, chipped away at the lead in the second half but never tied the score.
“They had us on our heels from the first two minutes,” said Raiders coach Kermit Davis. “We kind of chased them. Tonight, Hill was the best player on the floor. He dominated the game at the point guard spot.”
The Panthers have won five of their past six games and have momentum as they prepare for the finals.
“I don’t want to use the card that nobody believed in us, but nobody really should have because we brought in so many new guys, and it was a lot of unproven guys, and I hope they’re proving themselves right now,” Pitino said.