FIU men’s basketball team wears something close to the Golden State Warriors’ colors, but Thursday, especially in the first half, orange-clad UTEP got to act like the bomb-shooting NBA champions.
The Miners played that role in an 84-74 Panthers loss at FIU Arena the way fantasizing kids on playgrounds everywhere do — against a defense present only in the imagination.
Open looks a-plenty greeted UTEP. That’s how the visitors ended the first half with Splash Brothers numbers: 9 of 12 (75 percent) from three-point range with sophomore guard Omega Harris and junior guard Lee Moore each 4 for 4.
The 12-point first-half advantage from three-point range was the same advantage at the final horn. The Panthers fell behind by as many as 21 before closing up during garbage time.
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FIU (11-14, 5-7 Conference USA) suffered its fifth consecutive loss and fourth straight at home. The last time UTEP (14-11, 6-6) felt this welcome on the road was Feb. 7, 2015, a 67-64 win at FIU. The Miners lost their 10 road games between then and Thursday.
“We weren’t communicating transition-wise,” FIU coach Anthony Evans said in explaining the poor perimeter defense. “Guys were picking up their own man instead of just picking up somebody. So, they were getting open looks.
“I don’t think our effort was focused on the defensive side of the ball.”
For the game, UTEP shot 56.3 percent, 27 of 48, from the field. That FIU dominated second chance points, 15-2, yet still spent the night chasing the Miners on the scoreboard demonstrates the rather laissez-faire defense the Panthers played.
“We can score how many points we want,” FIU junior guard Elmo Stephen said. “We scored 74 points tonight. And we lost. So we’ve got to get better defensively.”
Harris and Moore tied as game-high scorers with 20 points. Stephen dropped in 18 for FIU.
While UTEP drained threes, FIU clanked free throws. The Panthers got into the double bonus with 9:04 left in the game, UTEP’s 6-11 senior center Hooper Vint fouled out and UTEP’s 6-7 freshman forward Terry Winn was one foul from joining Vint. This would leave the post areas to FIU senior center Adrian Diaz, shooting 79.2 percent from the free throw line in Conference USA games.
Instead of forming the basis for a comeback, the situation just made the game longer and more excruciating. FIU shot 28 free throws, a game’s worth, in the second half. The Panthers made just 13.