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Western Kentucky Hilltoppers’ press delivers knockout punch to FIU Panthers

In three minutes, the length of a boxing round, the FIU men’s basketball team lost Saturday night’s fast, physical fight with Western Kentucky at FIU Arena.

The other 37 minutes of FIU’s 65-58 loss played out as evenly as the final statistics — FIU shot a tad better from the field, 41.8 percent to 34.5 percent, on only three fewer attempts. Western Kentucky outrebounded FIU, 44 to 37. Each team blocked five shots, came up with eight steals and turned the ball over 13 times.

But from 11:04 left in the game until 8:04, Western Kentucky got its press going and outscored FIU 13-0, turning a 43-39 FIU lead into a 52-43 bulge the Hilltoppers never completely lost.

“They were able to turn us over a few times, get some baskets or at least get possession,” FIU coach Anthony Evans said. “That’s something we’re going to have to work on moving forward. We have to play them again at their place [Feb.28].”

FIU fifth-year senior guard Dennis Mavin led all scorers with 21 points and bore the Panthers’ scoring load with 6-10 redshirt junior center Adrian Diaz limited to 25 minutes by foul trouble. Western Kentucky senior forward George Fant led the Hilltoppers with 21 points and tied FIU’s Daviyon Draper with a game-high 11 rebounds.

FIU fell to 9-9, 2-3 in Conference USA and doesn’t play again for 12 days when it starts an NBA-like stretch of five games in 10 days created by the rescheduling of the home game against FAU for next Saturday’s Miss Universe pageant. Western Kentucky’s seventh consecutive win pushed it to 12-4 and 5-0.

You know a press is overwhelming a team when it calls timeout to avoid a time-line violation, then turns the ball over on the inbounds play after the timeout. FIU did that a minute into Western’s run. On Fant’s steal, he got fouled and tied the score at 43 with two free throws. He fouled Draper as FIU broke the press on the next possession, but Fant, Trency Jackson and D.J. Clayton smiled broadly, slapped hands and clapped rapidly as if having to beat excess energy out of their hands.

“They can’t take the heat!” Clayton and Jackson yelled.

Another turnover, this time at the offensive end, led to Jackson’s driving layup and a 45-43 deficit for FIU. Diaz came back in the game with four fouls. It didn’t help. Western senior T.J. Price drained a long three. Mavin missed when he tried to counter. Price drew a foul and hit both free throws: 50-43 Western Kentucky.

Mavin’s airball wound up in Fant’s hands, the same hands that caromed in a layup off the inbounds play following an FIU kicked-ball violation. Draper barged into the lane for a layup to end FIU’s scoring drought since his jumper in the lane put the Panthers ahead 43-39.

“It kind of came out of nowhere,” Draper said of the Hilltoppers’ press. “I thought we were being kind of careless and didn’t attack it as we should’ve.”

A late flurry got the Panthers within three twice, the first at 59-56. A Justin Johnson layup and fifth foul on Diaz pushed the margin back to five, 61-56. Mavin buried a jumper to make it a one-possession game at 61-58. Western Kentucky, however, iced the Panthers by hitting all four free throws in the remaining 43.2 seconds.

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