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Wacky night at The Branch

Saturday night's doubleheader against Lousiana-Monroe showed why true sports junkies forego Leno or Letterman for UC-Santa Claus vs. WestNorth Central Easterns on ESPN3. It's not always aesthetic, but I'd count it as entertainment. Well, I would if I didn't have to cover it.

In the women's 71-61 loss, FIU guard Jerica Coley's first half answered the question, "What if one of the nation's best players took on a bad team one-on-five?" Because while five FIU players scrambled like my brunch eggs in trying to play defense, only Coley played offense. The other four could've been replaced by three light poles and a catapult. The light poles could've set the screens, the catapult could've passed the ball and neither would've airballed shots from inside 5-feet as the non-Coley part of the FIU lineup did.

No exaggeration. FIU coach Cindy Russo called out Marita Davydova for "throwing (stuff, ahem) over the backboard" but Davydova wasn't the only one with Donald Duck GPS. It went from abysmal to comical.

Coley in the first half: eight for 14 from the field. Everyone else in the first half: one for 16.

Defensively, especially in the second half, ULM did what it wished. Open jumers off the wing, down on the baseline. Players who would've gotten the ball slapped off their extensions for going inside against Diamond Ashmore or Fianda Mansare, both out with injuries, worked freely. There's still no excuse for a 6-15 team to feast on you like the Shoney's buffet.

In the men's game, FIU showed tremendous maturity, not just in learning from the recent close losses to South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State, but in rebounding from their own in-game forehead-slapping screwups that could've sent them to a third consecutive loss.

In the first half, Tola Akomolafe drained a three-pointer. I turned to the ULM media relations guy sitting next to me and said, "That's the best thing that could happen for your team. Now, he'll keep thinking he can actually hit that shot. And in the second half, he'll take one or two he shouldn't."

Akomolafe's seven for 34 from three-point range. Unless it's desperation at the end of a game, any three-pointer he shoots is a bad decision, even if it drops. Sure enough, with the score tied at 71 and just over a minute left, Akomolafe jacked up a three with time left on the shot clock. Of course it clanked away and led to a fastbreak layup by Amos Olatayo (Akomolafe goaltended) that put ULM up 73-71 with 1:02 left.

FIU's Tymell Murphy, who always seems to come up with a clutch basket to stop runs, lost the ball driving into a thicket of Warhawks on the next possession. R.J. McCray came out with it and ULM called timeout. "Run the play!" Pitino screamed (among other things) at Murphy as FIU went into a brief huddle.

Ah, but when ULM opened the door by Trey Lindsey stepping on the sideline after the inbounds play, FIU walked through the door crisply. Smith's driving layup while drawing a foul on Olatayo put FIU up and Deric Hill's steal, drive and free throws gave FIU the win. They could've sagged after bad plays by Akomolafe and Murphy, after the big blown lead Thursday, after two down-to-the-horn games didn't go their way. They didn't. That's some maturity for a team that's still really a new unit.

Thursday, Pitino snapped that there were no positives to take from the loss to 19-4 Middle Tennessee State. Pitino's young and has only 21 games under his belt as a college head coach. Sometimes, the problem with young coaches, people who are young for any profession, is they're too insecure to admit a mistake. Pitino doesn't have that problem. 

"After the game, I was in a bad mood in here (with the media) and I probably wans't proud enough of our effort in the first half because there were a lot of positives to take from it," he said. "We're in Year One of a major rebuilding process. To be up 20 on a great team, probably a team that's going to get an at-large bid (to the NCAA tournament) says a lot about our team."

Pitino said he went home after Thursday's game and considered his team: "These guys are all basically freshmen. None of them have played college basketball the way that we play. The guys who were here last year hardly played. The other guys were in junior college basketball. The other guys are freshmen. So they have nothing to look back at and reference.

"So during a timeout, we can now reference what we did against Middle. And we can talk about that -- 'Don't lose your heads like we did against Middle.' And, next year, when we have guys back, we can talk about 'remember what we did against Monroe late in the stretch.' I had to sit back and think about it. These guys are still learning in Year One."

Also, when talking about FIU's defense, which forced 25 turnovers Saturday and is 19th nationally in steals per game, but often got dissected by ULM Saturday. In the second half, the Warhawks shot 70.4 percent. That's not tough when you're shooting layups after breaking pressure or open threes.

"Maybe I've got to learn and get better as a coach, but I like to take chances and some of those things that we did taking chances probably shot us in the foot a little bit," Pitino said. "We gave up a couple of open looks because of it. Maybe I should've gone a little more passive. But, I just don't like doing that. And I think you see Deric Hill continue to be aggressive, continue to try to make plays on the ball."

Pitino said he considered backing off, "but I saw that (Trent) Mackey and Olatayo both played 40 minutes. And I saw that Jayon James played 40 minutes. And I thought it was going to wear on their legs at some point. Whereas we played 10 guys and the minutes were evenly distributed."

Tired players commit fouls, usually because they're physically late or mentally dulled. Olatayo, who left the court in tears after his 30-point night couldn't prevent an FIU win, committed the late foul on Smith. Pitino wouldn't claim fatigue as the reason for that. I wouldn't discount it.

 

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