The Florida Tech Panthers returned from a 10-day hiatus and took down the visiting Columbia International Rams, 96-82 in their opening game of the Florida Tech Winter Classic on Tuesday.
Antonis Pefanis filled up the stat sheet with 26 points, nine rebounds, five steals and three assists. He led a potent Panthers offense that saw Derek Murphy get a double-double with 24 points and 12 rebounds and Valur Valsson, who scored 18 and dished out 11 assists. R.J. Coil chipped in with 11 points and six rebounds.
Columbia International out of the NAIA, came to play early, as they hit seven three-pointers in the first four and a half minutes, jumping out to a 21-7 lead.
“They shot the lights out early in the game,” Panthers coach Billy Mims said in his postgame interview with Jerry Durney. “They shot the ball really, really, really well. We didn’t play a lick of defense and we didn’t start the game with a lot of energy, we didn’t start the game with a lot of effort and I didn’t feel like we started the game with a lot of enthusiasm. We changed up our defensive strategy and then the guys started to play a little harder.”
The Panthers went on a 7-0 run and Valsson hit a three following the media timeout to make it 23-21 with 10:41 to go in the half. Valsson would hit two free throws moments later as part of the run that ended up 14-2 and helped the Panthers tie the game at 23.
Pefanis and Valsson hit back-to-back threes 22 seconds apart at the 8:20 mark, giving the Panthers their first lead since they started the game up 2-0.
Pefanis hit another three with 7:14 to go, to make it 34-29. He ended up going 5-for-8 from distance on this night. To the Rams credit, they fought back to tie it at 34 and the game went back-and-forth for a bit tied at 39 before the Panthers ended the half on a 13-6 run and led 52-45 at the break.
Florida Tech (6-3) went 18-for-37 from the field in the first half, good for 48.6 percent. They were 6-for-16 from beyond the arc and 10-of-12 from the free-throw line. They outrebounded the Rams 22-15.
Columbia International (6-7) got the first bucket of the second half and the Panthers took control again with a 13-2 run. Three-pointers from Darius Wright and Coil contributed to that run and gave the Panthers a 67-49 lead with 15:45 left.
A 15-0 run by the Panthers moments later, put them up 85-55 with 9:19 to go. As they had before, the Rams battled back and got it down to 15, 88-73 with 2:59 to go.
“When they got down 30 late in the basketball game, those kids could’ve folded and quit and they didn’t,” said Mims. “They kept battling, even made a couple quick runs and forced me to put my starting lineup back out there because they were cutting the game from 30 to 16 with three subs out there and a couple minutes of bad basketball. Hats off to them, as a young team, they didn’t come on the road to quit tonight.”
Florida Tech got it back up to 19, 95-76, with 1:26 to go, before Columbia International made another run to cut it to 13 with 18 seconds left. A free-throw by Nieja Jordan with 15 seconds left, gave the Panthers the final point of the night and with that, a 14-point win.
For more info: Columbia International @ Florida Tech Box Score
Florida Tech will wrap up the tournament Wednesday, playing the Tiffin Dragons at 6:00 p.m. Tiffin beat Embry-Riddle in the opener of the Winter Classic on Tuesday, 99-95. That should set up one heck of a game between the Panthers and Dragons in the tournament finale.