GAME NOTES: Sunshine State rivals wrap up the 2012-13 regular season on Saturday night, as the Florida Atlantic Owls play host to the FIU Panthers in Sun Belt Conference action at FAU Arena.
FIU has played some of its best basketball during the stretch run, having won three straight games following a 67-58 triumph over ULM on Thursday night to improve to 16-12 overall. The Panthers are 11-8 in league play, and with a win in this matchup, they will secure the No. 4 seed in next week's Sun Belt Tournament.
FAU has struggled to break free from mediocrity this season, as it sits with a 13-17 overall record and an 8-11 mark in conference. The Owls had been losers of five of their previous six contests heading into their latest matchup, where they got back on track with a 73-59 home win over UALR last Saturday to improve to 9-4 at FAU Arena this year.
FIU hosted FAU on Feb. 7 and won in convincing fashion, 84-65, for its second straight victory in the series on the heels of a five-game losing streak. The Panthers now lead in the relationship, 17-12.
Despite trailing ULM by seven at the break, FIU came out firing in the second half with a 14-2 run to begin the frame and effectively take control of the contest. The team shot a lofty 49 percent from the field and was led by a 16- point effort from Malik Smith. Tymell Murphy was in unfamiliar territory coming off the bench, but he responded by shooting 7-of-10 from the field for 15 points, while Jerome Frink added 13 points and six rebounds to the winning effort. On the season, the Panthers are the conference's third-best scoring team with 69.9 ppg, and while they allow exactly the same amount of points to the opposition, they have risen in the standings thanks to their success in games decided by six points or less (10-4). Murphy shoots a league-best 59.5 percent from the field for 15.3 ppg, and the well-rounded forward also contributes 7.0 ppg, 1.8 spg and 1.1 bpg. Smith scores 13.6 ppg, doing most of his damage from 3-point range (77-of-224), and Frink is a solid complement in the frontcourt with 10.6 ppg and 6.4 rpg.
The Owls controlled their latest game from start to finish, as they never trailed and put forth impressive percentages from both the field overall (.481), and the foul line (.762). Greg Gantt was on his game in the win, shooting 8-of-16 from the field and 8-of-9 from the foul line for 26 points. Stefan Moody was also outstanding, coming up just one point shy of his career- high with 25 points. Gantt is the SBC's leading scorer, pouring in 21.4 ppg thanks mostly to his prowess from 3-point range (82-of-208, 394) paired with his propensity for getting to the foul line (118-of-146, .808). Moody is a quality second option with 14.7 ppg, but he and Gantt have combined for 162 turnovers paired against only 105 assists. Despite the presence of two impressive scorers, FAU doesn't boast much depth behind them, which explains its lackluster scoring offense (64.5 ppg). Its scoring defense (67.4 ppg) also doesn't do much to help matters.
The home court advantage for FAU will be neutralized somewhat in this matchup, as FIU doesn't need to travel far. Even with the presence of Gantt, the Owls haven't posed much of a threat to their opponents this season, and with the Panthers trying to prove they belong in the discussion with the SBC's best, they will notch a road victory here to head into the conference tournament with plenty of momentum.