Photo courtesy of Devin Grimes / MTSU Athletics
A 22-4 run by the Florida International Golden Panthers (10-4, 1-0) in the second half was enough to hand the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (3-11, 0-1) their 10th straight loss on Thursday night at the Murphy Center.
Despite FIU jumping out to an early 12-4 lead, the first half was a back and forth affair complete with five lead changes after Donovan Sims connected on a pull-up three-point jumper to give MTSU their first lead by a score of 22-21.
Blue Raider guard Antonio Green ignited the offense early on for the home team as he scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds in the first half to lead his team to a 33-31 lead at the halftime break despite neither team converting on a field goal attempt in the last 3:55 of game time.
In the second half, freshman Jayce Johnson erupted for 12 points in the opening five minutes after being held scoreless in the first. Johnson consistently drove past defenders and converted on tough buckets around the rim and earned multiple trips to the free throw line in that stretch as the Blue Raiders watched their two-point halftime lead balloon to as many as 14 with 13:58 left to play.
That lead, however, seemingly evaporated as a 22-4 run by FIU in a span of six minutes propelled the Golden Panthers to a 64-60 lead when senior guard Brian Beard Jr. picked Johnson’s pocket and raced down the other end of the floor for an easy lay-up.
In that six minute game changing span, the Blue Raiders committed four quick turnovers that, along with timely three-point shooting from Beard Jr. and Trejon Jacob, sparked the Golden Panther run.
With 2:22 remaining in the game, Jacob knocked down one of his six three-point buckets on the night from the right corner to give FIU it’s largest lead of the game, 78-67.
FIU cruised to a 83-76 victory in the final minutes.
Johnson’s second half eruption shows signs of promise
In the first five minutes of the second half, Johnson provided the Blue Raiders with a desperately needed offensive spark. He was fouled on three consecutive made lay-ups and with an assist to Sims on a three-point basket from the right wing, saw his stateliness go from zero points and two assists in the first half to 12 points and three assists by the time the under-16 minute media timeout occurred. Johnson’s offensive explosion was key to providing the Blue Raiders with a double-digit lead early on in the half.
“We were telling some of our guys to be aggressive coming off ball screens. They switch (defenders) 1-5 so at times, one of their posts were on one of our guards,” head coach Nick McDevitt said in regards to Johnson’s dribble penetration. “I thought (Johnson) did a great job of being aggressive when the second half started.”
FIU’s hot shooting and turnovers haunt MTSU
While FIU only shot 37.5 percent from beyond the arc throughout the game, the combination of Beard Jr. and Jacob connected on timely three-point buckets during their comeback.
Jacob finished with 20 points on 6-9 shooting from three (most of them coming from the corners) and Beard Jr., who was averaging 20 points per game coming into the contest, knocked down five of his 13 three-point attempts.
MTSU finished the game with 21 turnovers. Of the 21 turnovers, 1o came in the second half, and four of those came in a crucial five-minute stretch that saw the 14-point Blue Raider lead transform into a four-point Blue Raider deficit.
Turnovers have been a consistent issue all year for the Blue Raiders, and Thursday night was no different as the FIU full-court pressure (which has forced 22.7 turnovers per game coming into Thursday) forced key turnovers that accelerated their run.
“With our press offense, those passing windows got a little shorter and a little tighter,” McDevitt said. “We had some careless turnovers that gave them some easy (points).”
The Blue Raiders will hope to avoid their 11th straight loss as they host Florida Atlantic on Saturday at 5 p.m. at the Murphy Center.
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