The Saint Leo Lions held off a very determined Florida Tech team on Wednesday, hanging on for an 81-79 win in front of what head coach Billy Mims called the best crowd of the season at the Clemente Center.
“It was the best atmosphere of any Sunshine State Conference game I’ve seen this year,” Mims said. “It reminded me of the old days when I first got here. We had a home-court advantage tonight and I want to say thank you to everyone who worked so hard to set this up.”
Valur Valsson launched a last second three didn’t fall, hitting the rim and bouncing out. Derek Murphy got the rebound, but was unable to get a shot off before the horn and with that, the Panthers suffered their fifth straight defeat in Sunshine State Conference play.
“We did set a flare screen for Russell but Val didn’t make the play, it probably looked like it wasn’t open to him,” said Mims. “He tried to come back and make a play, tried to pump fake and get the defender up to make contact, but it wasn’t there in his mind. Instead of shooting a jumper, I would have liked to get a shot off going to the basket with Murphy and that’s what we were trying to do. It just didn’t materialize.”
This game was tied 10 times and saw seven lead changes. The Panthers shot 48.9 percent from the floor (23-of-47). They were 9-of-16 from three-point range, good for 56.3 percent, and shot 75 percent from the line, 24-for-32.
Murphy scored a career-high 36 points and freshman Sesan Russell continued his impressive start to his Panthers tenure, with a career-high 25 points.
Murphy shot the ball well, going 11-of-20 from the floor, including a perfect 5-for-5 behind the arc. He was an impressive 9-for-11 from the free-throw line. Murphy was the Panthers leading rebounder with eight. He also had two assists and one steal.
Russell, playing in his seventh game as a Panther on Wednesday, was 8-for-14 from the floor, 2-of-4 behind the arc and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line.
“I felt in spurts we were clearly the better team and then there were other times we just fell asleep and they took advantage of that,” said Russell after the game. “We started off okay, improved midway through the first half and we picked it back up in the second half.”
Valsson was the only other Florida Tech player in double digits, finishing with 12 points. He also had a team-high seven assists. He was 6-for-6 from the free-throw line and had six rebounds.
“We had a stellar game from three players,” said Mims. You can’t ask for more. The problem was we played eight players tonight and had five more guys that played double-digit minutes and combined for a total of six points and seven rebounds.”
“That said, I am extremely proud of the effort all eight guys played with tonight, he continued. They put their heart and soul into it and played their ass off. We just needed more production.”
Murphy got the Panthers going with a bucket off the win of the tip. Unfortunately, the Panthers then watched Saint Leo go on a 12-2 run and were down 12-4. A free-throw by Murphy got the Panthers to within three, 14-11, but a three by Daniel Duarte of Saint Leo squashed the momentum.
Russell would make a layup moments later, cutting the lead to 17-15, but again it was a three from Isaiah Hill, putting the Lions up by five. A three by Murphy made it 22-20 with 7:34 to go, but Saint Leo would score eight of the next 11 points and go up 30-23. Murphy cut it to four quickly, with another three.
The rest of the half went back-and-forth, with Valsson hitting two free throws with 1:24 to go, tying the game at 36. Saint Leo would score the final five points of the half, going up 41-36 at the break. The Panthers shot themselves in the foot, missing six free throws in the first 20 minutes.
Saint Leo (11-13, 8-8 SSC) scored the first points of the second half, but a three by Russell cut the Panthers deficit to 43-41. Saint Leo answered with a bucket, but a Murphy long ball made it 45-44 with 17:04 left in the game.
Florida Tech (8-15, 2-13 SSC) stayed within a couple and after a three by the Lions’ Kyran McClure made it 49-46, Murphy answered, tying the game with 15:41 to go. McClure would hit from deep again, making it 58-55 and would 61-57 on a Hill long ball, but the Panthers got consecutive threes from Murphy and Valsson, putting the home team up 63-61 with 8:40 to go.
The see-saw battle continued with Murphy’s bucket giving the Panthers a 70-67 lead with 5:41 left. Four straight points from Russell gave the Panthers their biggest lead of the night, 74-68 with 3:44 to go.
Unfortunately for Florida Tech, Guntaris Bartaskas drained a three at the other end and cut the lead to three.
“Less than three seconds expired and he hit a three from the NCAA mark wide open,” said Mims. “Nobody’s guarding him in transition. So in three seconds, we had a six-point lead, in one shot, one play, cut in half. That’s a big swing.”
Saint Leo went up 75-74 with 2:48 left, but Murphy would hit two free throws to make it 76-75. Antonis Pefanis would make another, moments later and it was 77-75 with 1:59 to go. A Russell layup made it 79-75, but as they had done all night, the Lions answered with a three, this one from Bartaskas.
McClure made a free throw with 27 seconds left to put his team up 80-79, but the Panthers had a chance to get the lead. Darius Wright attempted an inbound play that was not corralled and resulted in a turnover. McClure would hit one more free throw, setting up the final shot from Valsson that wasn’t meant to be.
For more info: Saint Leo @ Florida Tech Box Score
Another tough test awaits the Panthers on Saturday, as they head to Fort Lauderdale to take on the first place Nova Southeastern Sharks, who won on a shot in the closing seconds Wednesday night to improve to 20-2 overall and 14-2 in the conference.
Tipoff on Saturday is scheduled for 4:00 p.m.