The lead gained by an opening sprint long gone, FIU reeled into a timeout 7:04 into Saturday’s second half at U.S. Century Bank Arena.
FAU led by eight, and the Panthers were knocking paint off the rim with their shots.
But instead of folding, FIU pulled out its two trump cards this season, rebounding and the nation’s leading scorer, senior guard Jerica Coley. And the Panthers kept throwing down trump through runs of 10-2 to tie the game and 9-0 to take control in a 76-72 victory.
“The last three times they’ve played them, they pressed us in the open court and Jerica got in the open court and scored,” FIU coach Cindy Russo said. “They went with a box-and-one, and they traded off with every pick we set. They played us as smart as they ever have.”
Coley not only piled up a game-high 36 points on 15-of-28 shooting, but she came down with a game-high 12 rebounds, added six assists and four blocked shots. Junior guard Kamika Idom and sophomore guard Taylor Shade each scored 10 points while garnering eight and six rebounds, respectively. Junior forward Tynia McKinzie had 10 points, six rebounds and altered at least 10 FAU shots through excellent positional help defense.
“When we were doing our walkthroughs, she was pretty good about what she was going to do,” Coley said of McKinzie. “Because we played them before [on Jan. 15], we knew this team was going to penetrate a lot, whoever she was going to be guarding. Closing up gaps is what we were working on in practice.”
Essaying the role of FAU answer woman, senior guard Kimberly Smith drained 6 of 13 from three-point range in a 22-point effort that featured several timely baskets to halt FIU runs. Freshman guard Shaneese Bailey muscled inside for 14 points and 10 rebounds, and senior guard Takia Brooks had 15 points.
The Panthers streaked to a 12-3 lead and made nine of their first 11 shots. But FAU (12-8, 2-5 Conference USA) withstood that early flurry and led 33-31 at halftime after Smith banged in a deep three-pointer on its final possession of the first half.
Down 51-43 with 13 minutes left, FIU (10-10, 4-3) began the comeback with an Arielle Durant putback of a Coley miss.
Coley’s next shot, a jumper off the dribble, cut the lead to 51-47. After Bailey scored off the glass, Idom put back a Coley miss: 53-49. Bailey missed, a shot affected by the 6-0 McKinzie’s bulk and Coley kissed in another jumper. A running one-hander tied the score 53-53 with 8:25 left.
Two minutes later, a Smith three-pointer pushed FAU (12-8, 2-5) out to a 61-58 lead. Coley again beat layers of coverage to sink a jumper. Two Shade free throws put FIU in front 62-61, for the first time since the first half. Coley chased down her own rebound and laid it in for a 64-61 lead after McKinzie ruined Bailey’s fast break layup attempt.
A Shade three-pointer expanded the lead to 67-61 with 3:00 left. FAU got it down to three at 70-67, but more Coley and free throws by Zsofia Labady in the final minute sealed the game.