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Conference competition on the court, in the pool

First, the setup for the Sun Belt basketball tournaments next week in Hot Springs, Arkansas ("Sal-loot!").

The men and women of Middle Tennessee State monopolize the No. 1 seeds. FIU's women have the No. 5 seed and will face No. 4 seed Arkansas State Saturday at 11:30 a.m. The winner faces the winner of Middle vs. FAU or Louisiana-Monroe. Which is to say, if FIU wins, it faces Middle Tennessee on March 10 in the Sun Belt semifinal.

That's not a lock for Middle. With Diamond Ashmore, Finda Mansare and Kamika Idom, FIU dealt Middle the first of its three conference losses and did so at Murfreesboro. Those three were missing in the rematch at The Branch, when FIU hung in until the lack of defense and rebounding down low sunk the Panthers. Idom should be back from her knee injury for the tournament, giving FIU another true outside shooting threat besides Jerica Coley.

The men go in as a No. 4 seed, playing Saturday at 6 p.m. against Arkansas-Little Rock. FIU split with UALR, losing by 12 there and winning by 13 at home. In the first game, FIU had nine steals and 14 points off turnovers while UALR used their size advantage for a 42-14 points in the paint differential. In the sequel, the Panthers came up with 14 seteals and 25 points off turnovers and UALR's advantage from the lane was only 35-30.

The winner plays Middle Tennessee, which smacked FIU by 17 near Nashville then needed a last second shot by local native Sean Jones to beat FIU at the buzzer after trailing by 20 at one point.

The second Arkansas-Little Rock game was the last game before a pre-practice locker room blistering -- audible all the way across the hall behind the locker room -- Pitino gave the team last Tuesday.

"I think they've been slipping a little bit from what got us here," Pitino said after Saturday night's 77-60 slashing by FAU. "I haven't loved the way they've been practicing. I think it's tough this time of year because I think they're just looking for the games. We've been doing this so long, the practices get a little monotonous. I think they're kind of worn down from that."

But, Pitino said, "We've got a whole week now to get better."

Speaking of getting better, Cameron Bell hopes that'll be what happens with his back soon. While driving to the hoop Saturday night, Bell got hammered to the floor and landed on his lower back or posterior (hard to tell which at that angle). He left with an ice pack on his lower back.

SWIMMING & DIVING 

FIU took down a few more school records and tied a Sun Belt record in the last event of the Sun Belt Swimming & Diving Championships, the 400 freestyle relay.

Johanna Gustafsdottir motored through the first leg in 50.10, thus regaining her school record in the 100 free that Klara Andersson had taken earlier in the Saturday night session. That gave FIU an almost full second lead on FAU, which eventually fell back to third behind North Texas. Andersson lost a teeny bit of the lead, which was quickly restored by Dani Albright. Marina Ribi brought home FIU in 3:21.67, which tied the Sun Belt record set by Denver in 2009 and beat the school record set at last year's Sun Belt meet when Andersson and Gustafsdottir sandwiching Kelly Grace and Kayla Derr.

That gave Gustafsdottir two individual wins and three relay wins, each of which she led off. In two, she led off with school record swims and the third she merely gave FIU a lead it maintained until the end. Yet Sun Belt coaches still voted FAU's Eszter Bucz, who also had two individual titles, Most Outstanding Swimmer. If they say so...I just note it was Bucz's third leg that took FAU out of contention in the 400 free relay. Her 52.0 swim took FAU from less than a second behind leader FIU to 2.1 seconds off the lead and in third place (North Texas steamed past).

Gustafsdottir in the 200 IM and Sonia Perez in the 400 IM qualified for the NCAAs. Last year, only Gustafsdottir among the swimmers made the NCAAs. Diver Sabrina Beaupre came into the Sun Belt meet long ago having already qualified, but will have ankle surgery Thursday to fix an almost year old problem.

Earning First Team All-Conference were Gustafsdottir, Andersson, Albright, Jessica Chadwick, Sonia Perez, Marinia Ribi, diver Sabrina Beaupre. Valeriia Popova and Courtney Vanderschaaf made the Third Team.

For more from tonight's sessions, see earlier blog linked to below.

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