For 22 minutes Saturday night at FIU Arena, the FIU men’s basketball season cannon-balled toward the nadir of at least its Conference USA season. The Panthers trailed four-win Texas-San Antonio early in the second half.
Losing five in a row overall and four in a row at home doesn’t butter anybody’s popcorn. But extending both streaks by losing to a four-win, last-place team gets folks reviewing résumés instead of game film.
Before any death watches could start, an 11-0 Panthers run pulled FIU out of the plunge against the Roadrunners and reset the FIU GPS for a 79-65 win. The Panthers moved to 12-14 overall, 6-7 in Conference USA. UTSA holds at 4-22, and 2-11 in conference play.
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“We’re all tired of losing,” said junior guard Donte McGill, who tied UTSA’s Ryan Bowie with a game-high 20 points. “We know we’re a good team. This is frustrating, losing those games. But we’re going to take this game, build off of it and try to get a streak going by the time we get to the conference tournament.”
Three players — McGill, senior forward Daviyon Draper and senior center Adrian Diaz — accounted for 55 of FIU’s 79 points and did so on crisply efficient 22-of-32 combined shooting (68.8 percent). Draper, FIU’s most consistent scorer this season, had 13 points at halftime before finishing with 18, seven rebounds and three steals.
“I thought we were more aggressive in the second half,” FIU coach Anthony Evans said. “They slowed us down last year doing the same thing [pressing in the backcourt]. They tried the game tactics, and I thought it worked for the most part in the first half. The second half, we moved the basketball. We attacked them, and we got the easy baskets.”
A McGill layup tied the score at 36. Two defensive stops later, Draper drained a three-pointer. Off a missed J.R. Harris jumper and Eric Nottage rebound, McGill hit jumper in transition for 41-36 lead. That barely registered on the scoreboard when Jason Boswell stole the inbounds pass for a lay-in. UTSA called a timeout down 43-36. It got to 45-36 before the Roadrunners answered with two baskets.
Another FIU run, this one 14-4 featuring four free throws by Elmo Stephen and dunks by Diaz and Cameron Smith, brought on garbage time with 7:38 left and the Panthers leading 59-44.
“We defended,” Evans said. “After talking about the previous five games, we have to defend, which turns into offense, which gives us an opportunity to win every single night.”
FIU held UTSA to 3 of 18 from three-point range (16.7 percent) and 18 of 49 from the field (36.7 percent).
For the first time in his FIU career, 58 games before Saturday, Diaz came off the bench. A paucity of rebounds in home losses to Charlotte and Old Dominion (seven combined) and points in losses to Middle Tennessee and UTEP (20 combined) prompted Evans to start Smith.
Diaz came off the bench 6:02 into the game with FIU down 8-6 and being out rebounded 6-4. In addition to his scoring, Diaz finished with nine rebounds and two blocks before fouling out.
“You try as a coach to motivate in different ways,” Evans said. “I thought he could give us a little more. So I wanted to light a fire.”