This time, in the close home game against a conference foe from Texas, FIU could be described as “clutch” instead of “clutched up.”
Down four to Rice with 95 seconds left, FIU’s men’s basketball team scored the last eight points of the game to abscond with a 60-56 win Thursday night at FIU Arena.
A pair of three-pointers by junior guard Ray Rodriguez, whose 12 points came on four of six from three-point range, and two late free throws by Kris Gulley stopped the Panthers’ mini-slump. In FIU’s last two home games, the Panthers blew a 10-point second-half lead in a loss to Texas-San Antonio, then wasted a gutsy comeback with some late bumbling to lose by three to Texas-El Paso. Last week, the Panthers needed overtime to beat a seven-man squad from Southern Miss and then got blasted by 30 at league-leading Louisiana Tech.
FIU head coach Anthony Evans said he thought Thursday was FIU’s best game since the Jan. 31 win against Charlotte.
“We moved the basketball,” Evans said. “Other guys had to make shots for us to win. It wasn’t just Adrian [Diaz] or Dennis [Mavin].”
Thursday’s decisive run started with a miss. A corner three-point miss by Mavin, who led all scorers with 19 points, bounded off the rim out toward Adrian Diaz. Diaz tapped the rebound out to Rodriguez, who didn’t hesitate to fire. That cut the deficit to 56-55.
Rice called a 30-second timeout, then used 32 seconds of the shot clock before Seth Gearhart, two of eight from three-point range Thursday, clanked a three-point try. FIU patiently worked the ball around until Rodriguez came open in the corner with a 58-56 lead and 24 seconds left.
“Coach always stresses to shoot the ball with confidence if you have an open look. The team did a great job of finding me today. They have ultimate faith in me. I just basically did my job.”
Rice showed either confidence or obstinacy in its final possession. Being nine for 31 from three-point range and Marcus Jackson being two for eight from three-point range didn’t stop Jackson from taking a not-quite-open three-pointer with 11 seconds left. Gulley rebounded the miss, got fouled and hit two free throws.
The unexpected part of Rodriguez’s heroics was that he was around to do it. He played the final 10 minutes of the game with four fouls, as Evans wanted to get another shooter into the game to combat the Rice zone.
Also, Rodriguez usually backs up Tashawn Desir. After the Panthers committed 28 turnovers against La. Tech a week after committing 26 against UTSA, Evans started Rodriguez and benched Desir for the night.
“Just trying to play the certain way. He’ll be ready to go on Saturday,” Evans said.
As for what way that would be, Evans said, “Together. Share the basketball as a team. They did that today. Ray hit a couple of big shots. We need everybody to contribute for us to be successful.”
FIU is 13-13, 6-7 in Conference USA. Rice is 9-16, and also 6-7 in Conference USA.