Owls throw full team effort at FIU
At halftime of Florida Atlantic's 94-60 thumping of overmatched Florida International, a novelty performer named Tyler Scheuer entertained fans by balancing a bicycle, a wheelbarrow, an ironing board and a 10-foot ladder on his face.
In 20 minutes of basketball before and after that sensational display, the Owls entertained their fans by balancing just about everything except a bicycle, wheelbarrow, ironing board and ladder. Twelve different Owls scored Tuesday night at the Elly, four in double figures. Ten grabbed at least one rebound. Ten recorded at least one assist. Five hit at least one 3-pointer.
Even the one thing the 15th-ranked Owls (8-2) didn't do well on an otherwise glorious night, they did as a team. FAU missed 12 of 23 free throws, but those misses were spread five different ways.
More happily, all 13 Owls finished the game at least plus-1 in their individual plus-minus scores, even the reserves who hung in as FIU (3-8) got frisky in the game's latter stages from the 3-point line.
In Coach Dusty May's judgement, the performance wasn't altogether exceptional—"32 to 35 minutes of good basketball," he said—but the Owls never trailed. And there were enough exhilarating moments to wash away any lingering player disappointment over the 98-89 loss to Illinois last week.
"It was great," said senior guard Bryan Greenlee (pictured above via Bob Markey III). We were slow the last game, not playing (like) ourselves. It was important to get our mojo back and be connected as a team."
More important to May, the Owls corrected some of the defensive problems they've targeted since Illinois.
"We were active (against FIU) When we looked at it, Illinois simply tried to space the floor and play one-on-one basketball, and they did a good job of it. But we weren't very disciplined in our gaps or our personnel awareness … But we had a longer time to prep (for FIU), and we improved in that facet."
Greenlee and junior guard Brandon Weatherspoon scored 12 points each to trail only Johnell Davis, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half, and Alijah Martin, who scored 13 of his 14 in the second. As a team, the Owls hit 64 percent of their shots (36 of 56) including half of their 22 3-point tries.
Weatherspoon got FAU off to an electric start by throwing down a dunk on a breakaway to open scoring. But for the next few minutes the Owls were largely hit-and-miss on offense and all miss from the free-throw line. FAU was 0-for-6 before Martin split a pair of free throws almost 8 minutes in. At that point the Owls led just 13-5, but it took the Panthers another four minutes to make it to 10 points (by which time FAU had 23), four more to get to 15 (with FAU at 31) and five more to chug into halftime with 20 points (to FAU's 43).
"We were applying ourselves on defense first," Greenlee said. "Our defensive performance, I felt, in the early minutes of the game was good. Things weren't falling on offense, so we just kept relying on our defense, and eventually things started to click."
FAU picked up the pace by picking the Panthers' full-court press apart. FIU led the country in forcing turnovers, and the 17 they forced Tuesday might look like an impressive figure. But Owls attacked the press and succeeded enough to get a variety of easy shots either in transition or before the Panthers could set their half-court offense. Some of those FAU turnovers were incidental damage on a night their offensive aggressiveness led to 24 assists on 36 made shots.
"We just had to focus on ball security and being crisp with our passes," Greenlee said.
Weatherspoon got the Owls started even more impactfully in the second half. He finished off each of the Owls' first three possessions with a 3-pointer, each assisted by Jalen Gaffney. Not even 90 seconds in, the Owls had a 52-20 lead. It was an noteworthy stretch for Weatherspoon, too—in those 90 seconds he matched his total output the the previous three games.
"That was big-time," Greenlee said. "He's obviously a great shooter and everybody has slumps. We knew it was just a matter of time before he would go on a stretch like this."
Weatherspoon actually had taken only 11 shots those three previous games. May said over that stretch he had been passing up good shots to get great shots. In that game-busting 90 seconds Tuesday, the great shots all found their way to him.
"All of them were paint-touch or rhythm 3s, and Spoon did what he does, he knocked them down," May said.
The game might have been under control, but in many ways the Owls saved some of their best moments for last—and were provided by the last of them to enter the game. Isaiah Gaines scored one layup and assisted on another, Leo Beath scored twice and—in a move deserving of YouTube immortality—Alejandro Ralat wheeled to the baseline, lost his defender with a head fake and hesitation dribble, and reversed in a layup.
The rotation players were thrilled for their teammates.
"Coach May always tells us to stay on them so they're prepared when their name gets called," Davis said.
May was pretty tickled, too.
"The last four minutes were as rewarding as any, to see that group of guys come in that don't get a lot of time in," he said. "They looked good. They shared it. I thought they had a lot of good force and power around the rim. They did a lot of really good things."
This was the Owls' last home game before American Athletic Conference play begins in January. Their final non-conference games are Saturday against St. Bonaventure in Springfield, Mass; Dec. 23 against top-ranked Arizona at Las Vegas; and Dec. 30 against Florida Gulf Coast at Fort Myers.