FIU zone shuts down WKU in 81-63 Topper loss

Western Kentucky’s Jamal Crook scores two points Saturday after a steal from Florida International University. Crook shot 10 points in WKU’s 63-81 loss to FIU.

Brad Stephens

WKU came home to Diddle Arena Saturday looking to close 2011 with its second straight league win.

Instead the Toppers struggled all game to find rhythm against Florida International’s 2-3 zone and fell 81-63.

It was the first victory for FIU (4-10, 1-1 Sun Belt Conference) in their last 13 trips to Diddle Arena, dating back to Feb. 2, 1999.

WKU (5-10, 1-1) shot 34.5 percent from the field and committed 17 turnovers compared with 13 assists.

Freshman forward Nigel Snipes said the Toppers were too timid offensively for much of the game.

“We just weren’t very aggressive in the beginning,” said Snipes, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds. “We should’ve picked it up in the beginning, tried to attack the zone and get it moving, but we were more passive.”

The Panther defense controlled WKU both on the interior (nine blocks) and behind the arc (28 percent defensive 3-point percentage).

“We played east-west a lot, we played sideline-to-sideline a lot, we didn’t penetrate enough and execute how to attack their zone,” Head Coach Ken McDonald said.

Forwards Dominique Ferguson and Brandon Moore (three and five blocks, apiece) and guard Jeremy Allen (four steals) were the primary defensive stoppers for FIU.

FIU Head Coach Isiah Thomas said his team is “starting to get the hang” of how to play the zone.

He said his team’s reliance on the 2-3 zone Saturday wasn’t because scouting reports showed WKU had struggled with similar defenses throughout the season.

“This is how we play, and what we’re trying to establish for the rest of the season,” Thomas said.

While the Toppers failed to do much offensively in the first half, their defense kept the deficit to just 27-25 at halftime.

But a Panther scoring burst in the first few minutes of the second half pushed FIU’s lead to double-digits.

The Panthers went on a 10-0 run to take a 39-29 lead between the 17:41 and 16:10 marks of the second half.

Allen hit a 3 and a layup during the minute-and-a-half stretch of play, while guard Phil Taylor notched a 3 and Ferguson made a layup to cap the run.

“We just came out sluggish (in the second half),” Snipes said. “We should’ve just picked it up and gone a little harder.”

Taylor would go on to score 18 of his 20 points in the second half, including 10 free throws down the stretch.

Meanwhile Allen finished with a game-high 22.

“Their guards, I thought, in the second half did a very good job dictating the game,” McDonald said. “Phil Taylor did a good job getting fouled and making sure that they got good shots.”

WKU never got within five after FIU’s 10-0 run.

Senior guard Kahlil McDonald hit a 3 with 11:47 to play and two free throws at the 10:40 mark to cut the Panther lead to 46-41.

But Allen answered with a jumper and two free throws to push FIU’s lead back to nine.

Three minutes later consecutive layups from freshman guard Derrick Gordon and freshman forward George Fant trimmed the deficit to 51-46 and got the New Year’s Eve Diddle Arena crowd of 2,375 on its feet.

But Ferguson converted a three-point play on FIU’s next possession to take back the momentum.

Ferguson, who, like WKU freshman forward Vinny Zollo, was once committed to Kentucky under former UK Head Coach Billy Gillispie, finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.

“Ferguson’s as athletic a guy as you can come across,” Ken McDonald said.

After Ferguson’s three-point play pushed their lead to 54-46, the Panthers spent much of the rest of the game at the free-throw line.

FIU hit 21-of-22 free throws during the game’s final five minutes to ward off any potential Topper comeback.

Ken McDonald was hit with a technical foul with 1:06 to play, and the Panthers pushed their lead to its peak of 20 with nine seconds left.

Gordon answered with a layup with five second left to make the final score 81-63.

When addressing the media, McDonald used the Toppers’ next-to-last play of the first half as an illustration for his team’s struggles with FIU’s zone.

With 38.5 seconds before half in a 25-25 game Gordon grabbed a defensive rebound for the Toppers and handed to junior guard Jamal Crook.

McDonald shouted instructions for the team to hold the ball until the 10 seconds remained on the shot clock.

After Crook held near half-court for close to 20 seconds, the team passed the ball around the perimeter and then back to Crook at the top of the circle.

Crook, a career .111 percent 3-point shooter coming into Saturday, took and missed a 3.

Snipes then fouled Taylor on the rebound.

Taylor hit the ensuing free throws to send FIU into the locker room up 27-25.

“How we ended the half was disappointing,” McDonald said. “We had a chance to have the last shot, which we talked about, and took a quick 3 and ended up fouling and going down two to end the half.

“The mental part of the game, and carrying it over through adversity and carrying it over with the body language is something where we really have to make a big jump.”

The Toppers won’t play again until 2012, when they tangle with Louisiana-Lafayette in Thursday in Diddle Arena.

The Ragin’ Cajuns, picked during the preseason to finish second in the Sun Belt’s West Division, are 6-8 on the year.

ULL has four players, Kadeem Coleby, J.J. Thomas, Josh Brown and Darshawn McClellan, averaging between 10.8 and 9.1 points per game thus far.

McDonald said for his team to have success against ULL and for the rest of its Sun Belt schedule, the Toppers will have to improve offensively.

“Sometimes our team is worried about making a mistake and turning the ball over and they’re playing a little bit timid,” McDonald said, “rather than what we talk about before the game, being aggressive and making two guys guard you and then pass the ball.

“It’s a part of the learning process we’ve got to get better at.”

Additional Notes:

-Kahlil McDonald had to leave the game with 1:06 to play after catching an inadvertent elbow to the bridge of his nose. Ken McDonald said after the game he wasn’t sure whether or not the senior guard would receive stitches for the injury.

-WKU is now 1-10 when trailing at halftime this season.

-The Toppers went 10-of-10 from the foul line in the first half, and have now made 24-straight first half free throws.