FIU's women's basketball team knows they've got their best player, maybe the best player in the program's history, for 40 minutes a night. FIU's men's basketball team doesn't know if they'll have their best player back by the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
There's your difference Saturday night against both genders of win-starved Louisiana-Monroe hoopsters. Whether it turns out to be the difference come conference tournament time, we will see.
Sophomore guard Jerica Coley saved the FIU women from an embarrassing potential upset home loss by taking control of Saturday's game -- twice. It was akin to watching an old school parent and kid. Monroe reached for the game, Coley slapped the hand. Monroe reached for the game again, Coley popped it upside the head. FIU won 65-55 and Coley poured in a career high 36 points.
There was no senior guard DeJuan Wright to save the men. The Monroe men came in 1-15, yet after an 11-0 first half run, never trailed FIU on the way to a 54-50 win. FIU had its chances near the end, including with a strangely staffed desperation play, but nobody took true ownership of the game. Not to say guard Phil Taylor (6-18, 19 points) and Jeremy Allen (4-16, 10 points) didn't try. They didn't get it done, however.
Neither women's coach Cindy Russo nor men's coach Isiah Thomas felt her/his team played well offensively Saturday.
"They're nice athletes, they're quick and they're fast," Russo said of Monroe, which came in 4-12. "And they showed us a different kind of game. It was kind of a junk defense at times. But we never really settled down and picked it apart, which we should've been able to do. Five players just decided we're not all going to do it at the same time. Congratulate them on pulling it out, but disappointed that I thought we lacked the focus and concentration we needed to have."
Coley said, "First half and second half we didn't run our sets like we wanted to, we didn't run it hard. We could've gotten more of what we wanted, so we let them hang around.
Also, FIU spent most of the game plodding fast break opportunities away, as if scoring so quickly and easily would offend their sensabillities. Monroe, on the other hand, had two players flying as soon as they saw a shot and got the outlet passes going. The Warhawks got some cheap buckets, while FIU grinded it out every possession. And, when FIU's lead shrank to 41-40 in the second half, you could feel the uh-oh permeating the building.
Coley had gone 5 for 14 in the first half.
"I figured, eventually, they were going to go in," Coley said. "So, I just kept shooting. Coach was telling me I was rushing the shot, so I tried to slow it down a little bit and they went in."
With FIU precariously leading 41-40, Coley hit a three-pointer; blocked a pass from Elexar Tuglar (not to be confused with Alexar Tuglar, also on Monroe), stole it, then fed Finda Mansare for the fast break layup; got a fast break layup off a Carmen Miloglav steal; made another steal, and went end-to-end for a driving jumper off the glass.
All that put FIU up 50-40 with eight minutes left. But four minutes later, there they were again, up only 51-50. So, Coley drained a three with the shot clock buzzing; banged in a foot-on-the-line two-pointer; then bombed in another three pointer: 59-52. Coley went four for four from the line in the last 25 seconds as FIU put away the game.
So, to sum up: 12 of FIU's last 14 points, 19 of the 23 points in the two runs after FIU's lead got cut to one; a 23-point second half on eight of 10 shooting, four of five from the line. That's not being clutch. That's being The Thing at Clobberin' Time.
"Jerica's everybody's game plan. We need to really execute our offense, have four or five passes, we can get her the ball back," FIU coach Cindy Russo said. "It's not going to be off the first two passes. She has to be everybody's game plan. She attracts a committee to stop her. At the end of hte game, when we ran some things right, she got the ball back, that's exactly what happened. They can't keep up with her all the time."
Nobody stepped up like that for the FIU men. Thomas seemed at a loss why even after getting into the bonus, FIU didn't get the ball inside, where 6-10 Joey De La Rosa and 6-10 Brandon Moore could've put their Gatorade bottles atop the heads of their smaller Monroe counterparts.
"We didn't have enough patiencce to move the ball and put it inside," Thomas said. "Our guard play failed us in terms of patience."
In this game, it was FIU who played from behind all the way, closing the gap, then seeing Monroe pull away again throughout the game. Nobody could provide the final push on those key possessions. That's part of what Thomas lamented was lost without Wright.
"As you can see, we don't have that go-to guy out on the floor," Thomas said. "We struggle offensively because we don't have him. You can mark it down -- he gives you 17 (points) and eight (rebounds). But you also get those momentum plays where you get a dunk, you get a steal. His energy, his leadership. You definitely miss that on the floor."
Asked if Wright would be back before the conference tournament, Thomas said, "I don't know. I hope so."
With 6.9 seconds left, Thomas inserted Deric Hill, who had been stapled to the bench throughout the game. Hill's job was to throw an inbounds pass from behind the end line to De La Rosa at midcourt. Hill got the call because he'd been a high school quarterback in his past. Maybe he was a running quarterback because the pass was short, even as De La Rosa completed his come back pattern. Tight coverage got the ball knocked away. Monroe recovered it and Fred Brown hit two free throws to ice the game.
Going to try a home run play wehre Deric's going to throw it to the big," Thomas said. "The big will catch it, we had three trailers, three shooters or three people who can take it off the dribble. If he didn't have it, he could've called time out. That situation never should've happened. We should've taken care of business the first half."