FAU escapes Miami with crucial conference victory over rivals

SPORTS

The FAU Owls (14-12, 10-5) led rival FIU Golden Panthers (7-22, 4-12) by as many as 12 points in their conference match on Feb. 18, but the Owls had to watch a last-second shot go wide to claim a victory, which tied them for first place in the Sun Belt Conference’s East Division.

It took several defensive stops and a missed 3 at the buzzer by Golden Panthers guard Stephon Weaver for FAU to pull out a 77-74 victory at the U.S. Century Bank Arena in Miami.

While the triumph improved the Owls to 2-0 over head coach Isiah Thomas and their southern rivals this season (FAU beat FIU in Boca, 106-88, on Jan. 30), the win more importantly tied FAU with Troy and Middle Tennessee State for first place in the conference’s East Division with three games to play.

“It’s a great win, but like [head coach Mike Jarvis] told us earlier today, we’re not just looking at FIU,” said guard Ray Taylor, who scored 17 points and dished out six assists. “Coming into this game, we were playing to be the No. 1 seed in the East Division.”

After a back-and-forth first half, which saw the Owls play some shoddy defense, especially against the 3, the Owls came out and improved defensively, leading by as many as 12 points in the second half.

“We were very focused in our intensity on defense,” said forward Brett Royster, who contributed with 10 points and four blocks. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Don’t let your man score. I don’t care if you have to dive in front of him, do whatever you have to do. Put your body on the line, but he’s not scoring.’ And that’s the mentality we all had coming out of the half.”

While the Owls defense improved, the offense made a string of errors, which allowed the Golden Panthers to get back in the game and take a 70-69 lead with 3:09 to play in regulation.

A 3-point shot from Taylor just six seconds later would allow the Owls to reclaim the lead — a lead that they would not relinquish again.

The Owls did have a scare despite clamping down defensively, as a couple of late turnovers almost cost them the win.

A pair of giveaways by guard Alex Tucker with just seconds remaining gave FIU opportunities to gain the edge. But the Golden Panthers failed to capitalize on the errors, having a turnover of their own, a missed layup by forward J.C. Otero and a costly blocked shot by Royster.

Even with those flubbed chances, the Golden Panthers could have leveled the score at the buzzer, but a desperation 3-point shot by Stephon Weaver was off the mark, giving FAU its fourth Sun Belt road win of the season and 10th overall.

“If we were a business, and I came back and reported to the board that our sales were up 500 percent, everybody, especially if we were in the banking business, would be getting incredible bonuses.” said Mike Jarvis of the Owls’ conference road record this year compared to last season. “We’re up 500 percent. That’s incredible.”

 Hunting for first

Before the start of the Sun Belt Conference championship in March, the tied-for-first-place Owls have three games remaining this regular season, two of which are against the teams tied with them for the top spot in the East Division. FAU plays at Troy on Feb. 20 before hosting Western Kentucky five days later (7 p.m. EST) and ending the season at home against Middle Tennessee State on Feb. 27 (7 p.m. EST).

“I think it’s a positive for us to be playing the best teams, because — let’s face it — it’s all going to come down to March,” said Jarvis. “You have to win three or four then, and whoever does that will go to the NCAA tournament. So, if you’re going to have a chance to do that, then you have got to be able to know that you can beat, or compete, with the best teams.”