How many FIU sports seasons over the last two years have ended or pivoted on games against Western Kentucky? None of those games stand larger than Monday night’s win-and-you’re-in game for the Sun Belt men’s basketball title and automatic NCAA tournament bid.
Appropriately, FIU split with Western this season.
The first game, a 76-63 FIU loss, turned on Western’s bench points, where the Hillpeople had a 37-10 advantage. Also, during the decisive second half run that took Western’s lead from one to 11, the Hilltoppers’ seven to four rebounding advantage led to eight free throws and two three-pointers while FIU managed only four free throws, two of which came off a technical foul.
In FIU’s 87-82 win, both teams burned up the nets in the first half – 62.5 percent for FIU, 60.0 for Western – but Western cooled off more than FIU did in the second half. FIU took a four-point lead out to 11 in the first 7:27 of the second half as Western went one for four from three-point range and missed two layups while the Panthers came up with a couple of steals. In that FIU run, the Panthers got three-pointers from Jerome Frink and Tola Akomolafe. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – three-point shots by either of those guys, especially Akomolafe, are so low percentage that they’re bad shots even if they drop. FIU eventually led by 15 in the second half.
This also matches a team leaving the Sun Belt after this year against a Sun Belt overall athletic power that’s staying. I’m not saying that’s an automatic disadvantage for FIU. The conveniently questionable Sun Belt officiating I saw during FIU’s football season generally didn’t have a parallel in men’s basketball games I covered. And sometimes zebra bias isn’t conscious. But as a possible factor in what should be a close game, it can’t be discounted.
No matter the outcome, I'm feeling pretty vindicated in my vote for Richard Pitino as Sun Belt Coach of the Year.