FAU’s chances of repeating as Sun Belt Conference champs are rapidly diminishing.
In a battle of the defending regular season Sun Belt Champions (FAU) against the team with the best record in the conference this year (Middle Tennessee State), the Blue Raiders defeated the Owls 67-54 at The Burrow.
The loss dropped FAU to 2-3 in the conference. Meanwhile the Blue Raiders are now off to a 6-0 record in conference play and are 17-2 on the season.
Playing without point guard Ray Taylor due to concussion symptoms, the Owls started Alex Tucker in his place. It was something FAU’s head coach pointed to when breaking down the loss.
“Ray makes a huge difference against a team like them,” Head Coach Mike Jarvis said. “He’s going to beat people [off the dribble]. If he’s beating people and he’s into the point guard mode, passing the ball, then you can hurt them. He’s had some pretty good games against them doing that.”
Tucker scored five points with one assist and six turnovers.
“That’s way too many,” Tucker said of his turnovers. “It starts with the point guard, so I feel responsible for most of the turnovers [FAU had 16 turnovers as a team on the night], even though I had six.”
Afterwards, Tucker felt responsible for the loss, but did not feel the Blue Raiders nor their defense played extraordinary.
“It was pretty normal, pretty standard,” Tucker said. “[MTSU] just played well together. They were helping each other out a lot [on defense], so that makes it a lot tougher.”
FAU guards Greg Gantt and Shavar Richardson led the team in scoring with 10 points. Gantt shot 3-16 from the field, though.
Even though FAU shot 35 percent at the half, it trailed by just five at halftime (28-23), with guard Shavar Richardson scoring eight points in the first half and forward Kore White blocking two shots. White would be replaced at the start of the second half by reserve forward Andre Mattison and did not return until eight minutes remained in the game. White did not score and finished with three rebounds.
“Kore White has been missing all year,” Head Coach Mike Jarvis said of the reason he switched to Mattison. “He’s like a guy that went AWOL. Only problem is we see him. I’ve been waiting for Kore White to show up, but I’ve been waiting now for a couple of years.”
Mattison finished with six points and a game-high nine rebounds. Jarvis was impressed but stressed Mattison’s conditioning needs to be up to par for a bigger role on the team.
“Andre was playing a lot of minutes that Kore White should have been playing,” Jarvis said. “If he’s going to play a lot of minutes, he’s going to have to get in better shape, because it looks like he’s going to play probably a lot more minutes. He had a nice night.”
After a pair of Jordan McCoy free throws cut FAU’s deficit to 38-31 with 14:16 left, Middle Tennessee used a 13-1 run to put away the Owls for good.
“They stopped us on offense and came down and scored,” Tucker said. “With us not scoring points and them scoring points, we’re going to get down. They just played better than we did tonight.”
The Owls scored only three points off 16 Blue Raiders turnovers. Middle Tennessee, in contrast, exploited FAU’s 15 turnovers into 16 points.
“When you turn a team over, you got to score,” Jarvis said. “We just haven’t been doing that. You’ve got to do that.”
The Owls struggled offensively, shooting 31 percent from the field and only having 4 assists.
“The defense is good enough,” Jarvis said. “Offensively, we’ve got to get better.”
FAU’s season long Achilles-heel, free-throw shooting, haunted them again, as it shot 19 more free throws than Middle Tennessee (35 to 16) but shot just 68 percent from the line.
Even in defeat, though, Jarvis still believes his team can compete with the conference’s cream of the crop.
“Right now they’re the best team in the league,” Jarvis said. “Notice how I said right now they’re the best team in the league. I hope we can go in there [Feb. 18] and play mentally tougher. If we do, we can beat them again this year.”