HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- FIU’s run to the Sun Belt Conference basketball championship ended one win short Monday night with a 65-63 loss to Western Kentucky in the tournament finale.
The Panthers had won five of their past six games entering the contest but trailed much of the game against the Hilltoppers.
They pulled within one point with 8:16 left in the second half when senior forward Tola Akomolafe scored off an assist by sophomore guard Deric Hill. FIU’s Jerome Frink hit a jumper with eight seconds left to cut the lead to 62-60, but the Panthers could get no closer.
The Panthers (18-4) couldn’t stop the inside game of Western Kentucky’s George Fant, who scored 17 points, and couldn’t drive the ball inside themselves with the same success they had in their semifinal win over Middle Tennessee State the night before.
After shooting 18 of 22 from the free-throw line in the semifinals, the Panthers went 8 of 9 in the final.
The Hilltoppers were able to put the clamps on Hill, who scored one basket after leading the team in scoring against Middle Tennessee. FIU forward Tymell Murphy, who was first-team All-Sun Belt in the regular season, was held to 11 points. Cameron Bell led the Panthers with 15 points.
FIU coach Richard Pitino said the semifinal game against the Blue Raiders, who until that game was 19-1 in the Sun Belt, affected the team during the final.
“We were probably a little tired because we had such a war [Sunday] night,” he said. “To beat a team as good as Middle Tennessee — who is an NCAA Tournament team in my opinion — to beat them takes a lot out of a team, so there was a lot of emotion that went into that game.”
Hill and FIU guard Malik Smith were named to the All-Tournament team, as were Hilltoppers Fant and Brandon Harris. Western Kentucky’s T.J. Price was named Most Outstanding Player.
The Hilltoppers (20-15) will advance to the NCAA Tournament. The fourth-seeded Panthers will leave the Sun Belt after this season for Conference USA.
Pitino’s record of 18-14 is the best record by a first-year FIU mens’ basketball coach. The 30-year-old credited his players for that success after the game.
“They allowed me to be a good coach. ... They helped me just as much as I helped them,” he said. “They made suggestions day in, day out. ‘Hey, why don’t we try this?’ They talked in huddles like we’re an NBA team. They really did. They were awesome. I mean, I enjoyed coaching them so much.”
Pitino’s father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, was in the stands a couple of rows behind FIU’s bench, holding his granddaughter and obliging fans by posing for pictures during halftime.
Asked afterward about having him there, Richard Pitino said, “My whole life I’ve idolized him. I’ve gone to every game and marveled at what he does because he’s the greatest coach out there on the planet. And he’s shown it this year. He shows it every year. He’ll be in the Hall of Fame shortly. And so for him to be there to support me, it means a lot. It really does.”