Florida International U

Knights too physical for young Panthers in season opener

Tianah Alvarado was absent, Kiandre’a Pound was rusty, and the FIU women’s basketball team got brutalized on the backboards.

All that factored in as the Panthers lost their season opener, falling 69-52 to UCF on Friday night at FIU Arena.

Alvarado is out with a knee injury but should be back “soon,” according to coach Tiara Malcolm. Alvarado was replaced in the lineup by Amari Hawkins, a 5-7 junior who made her fourth career start and did not score.

For Pound, the Conference USA Freshman of the Year in 2014-15, this was her first game back after sitting out last season.

“I felt winded at times, but it felt great to contribute and be back with my teammates,” said Pound, who scored 13 points but made just 5 of 17 shots from the floor and had a team-high six turnovers. “I just wish we could have won.”

Sophomore point guard Kristian Hudson led all scorers with 16 points. Her Panthers played tough early, trailing UCF 18-14 after one quarter.

But UCF took control with a 36-24 lead at the half and a 54-37 advantage after three quarters. Helping to explain UCF’s win was the fact that the Knights dominated the boards, 52-15.

Neither team has any players taller than 6-1, so why did FIU get abused on the boards?

“It’s a heart thing,” said Malcolm, who is starting her first full year as FIU’s coach. “We told our girls before the game that [UCF] is pretty athletic. You are not going to be able to jump with them. You have to make contact and then pursue the ball. We got into a jumping contest with them, and we lost that battle.”

UCF captured 30 offensive rebounds, and because the Knights were so active near the rim, they were rewarded with more free throws than FIU.

The Knights, who tried very few outside shots — they were 1 for 3 on three-pointers — made 14 of 22 from the foul line.

FIU was much more interested in firing up three-pointers, making 6 of 13. But the Panthers got just 12 free throws, making 10. And they shot just 38.3 percent from the field, compared to 42.9 percent for the Knights.

Three Panthers freshmen made their debuts: forward Sydney Fields and guards Alexis Gordon and Kayla Rogers.

The three freshmen — who were the only reserves used by FIU — combined for 12 points. Gordon was most impressive, with eight points, including 2 of 4 on three-pointers.

Next up for FIU is Tuesday’s game at Florida Gulf Coast.