How did that happen?
How did an FIU team that got destroyed by Florida Gulf Coast and beaten by Western Kentucky just walk down Iowa, 66-65, which has 11 postseason tournament appearances in 12 seasons under coach Lisa Bluder and five straight NCAA berths? Bluder seemed to be thinking the same thing as she tossed her phone on the press row table -- the resulting "thud" sounded disheartened -- to watch Friday night's second game of the FIU Thanksgiving Classic. She looked down at the west basket where Jerica Coley had scored the game-winner as a red light framed the backboard. Occasionally, she put her face in her hands.
Meanwhile, FIU coach Cindy Russo looked ready to ease on down the road to the rest of a happy Friday night, if not into Sunday's championship game against LSU, which took out No. 12 West Virginia. It's been a few years since FIU had a win like this one, over a high quality opponent.
How did it happen? Want-to.
"I think the team came together and decided that we can't let any team beat us again like Gulf Coast did," senior forward Finda Mansare said.
While work ethic sometimes gets underrated as a skill, effort sometimes gets overrated as a factor. Too often, fans conclude their team didn't win because somebody didn't try hard enough or care enough. Most of the time, however, it's that the winning team simply had more talent and/or was better coached. All but a few players and coaches work hard. The best players and coaches work smart.
All that said, FIU beat Iowa on second half defense, rebounding and getting to loose balls: the effort areas. Iowa missed free throws at a key juncture, but so did FIU, which twice blew the front end of one-and-ones. In the end, FIU shot 14 of 17 from the line, 82.4 percent, and Iowa shot 10 of 13, 76.9 percent. Iowa finished fourth in the nation last year hitting 79.4 percent. Iowa's three misses all were by Claire Till and were Iowa's last three free throws of the game, but that was to be expected -- Till came into the game five of eight for the season. She was five of five in the game before missing three free throws to finish, yep, five of eight.
Defensively, FIU forced the same number of turnovers as in the first half, eight, but four were steals as opposed to two in the first half. FIU had 20 points off turnovers to Iowa's six in the game. The shooting percentage difference is negligble, 43.8 in the first half to 40.0 in the second half, but between more turnovers and allowing fewer rebounds, FIU held Iowa to 25 shots in the second half compared to 32 in the first half.
"We just weren't playing (the matchup zone) right," Russo said. "At halftime, we had a chance to adjust."
Then, look at rebounding. Iowa outrebounded FIU 12-8 at FIU's offensive end in the first half, but also 9-8 at the Hawkeyes offensive end. In the second half, FIU outrebounded Iowa 10-7 when on defense and were even, 11-11, on offense. Finda Mansare finished with a game-high eight rebounds.
To me, the key possession of the game was the one with FIU down 62-54 after Melissa Dixon's three-pointer. I thought that was the death blow. FIU came out of their timeout with 2:26 left. Coley missed, but Mansare got the board. Mansare missed the putback and Coley got that rebound. Coley got swatted on a drive by Iowa's Morgan Johnson. Then, with the shot clock winding down, she fired in a deep three-pointer. That whole sequence got continuances out of rebounding, sheer effort.
"That was a little iffy, I just threw it up there to hit the rim," Coley said.
Kamika Idom played four minutes. Her stat line reads zero for one from the field, zero from one from three-point range, one rebound. That one rebound was chasing down Till's final free throw miss and getting the final break going.
That's want-to. The kind fhat made a difference Friday night.