Photo: Runako Ziegler – Credit: Florida Tech Athletics
The Saint Leo Lions led from the jump on Thursday, beating the Florida Tech Panthers 77-67 in the Sunshine State Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament. With the loss, the Panthers’ 2021 season officially ends with an overall record of 4-4.
“I am really proud of this team,” said Panthers coach Billy Mims. “This was a rollercoaster of a season, we fought through the adversity and had a four-game winning streak coming into this game.
Runako Ziegler led the Panthers in scoring with 17 points. He was 7-for-14 from the floor. Mekhii Noble had a good night for Florida Tech scoring 15 and earning a double-double in the loss. He was 7-for-11 from the field and pulled down 12 rebounds. He also had an assist and a block for good measure.
Ziegler hadn’t played the last couple of games and wasn’t a hundred percent tonight but he gave all he had,” said Mims. “Noble has played well and proved that he had a bright future as one of the best post players in the conference.”
Neija Jordan also had 15 points, hitting seven of his eight free throws and added two steals. Sesan Russell had 13 points with 11 of those coming in the second half.
Saint Leo got balanced scoring with five guys in double-figures. Frank Webb, Jr. led the way with an 18-point, 10 rebound double-double. Webb also had five assists to pace the home team. Gintaras Bartaskas (15), Grant Disken (11), Jared Coomer (10), Cantia Rahming (10) were the other double-figure scorers for the Lions.
“Give credit where it’s due,” said Mims. “They played well as a team and made seven more threes than we did.”
Things got off to a decent start for the Panthers as they were crashing the boards and had nine early rebounds, six offensive, and were down 10-8 after a layup by Noble. That basket came with 14:53 to go in the half and the Panthers would not score again until Russell made his only shot of the first half with 7:48 left, a scoring drought of 7:05.
Before that Russell hoop, the Lions reeled off 10 straight points and led 20-10, and took advantage of four Panther turnovers in a nine-minute span. Ziegler would come in off the bench and score seven of the Panthers’ final nine points in the half. Saint Leo took a commanding 33-19 lead into the halftime break.
“We couldn’t buy a basket and couldn’t buy a call,” Mims said. “We shot 24 percent from the floor and seven percent from behind the arc. We were abysmal in that first half.”
After that 8-for-33 first half that included a 1-for-14 showing from three-point range, the Panthers turned things around in a big way in the final 20 minutes, shooting 41 percent (17-for-41).
Saint Leo upped their lead to 18 with 15:38 to go, but the Panthers took advantage of a lull as Jordan and Noble combined for seven straight points, punctuated by a Noble dunk that made it 46-35.
After a three by Bartaskas with 10:44 to go gave Saint Leo a 51-39 lead, the Panthers had their best run of the night as Trey Schaneville nailed a three, Jordan got the hoop and the harm and Jacob Crockett banged down a three with 7:51 left to cut the SLU lead to 52-48, completing a 9-1 run.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way this team fought back,” said Mims. “A team with less character and less heart wouldn’t have kept fighting the way we did.”
A 55-50 Saint Leo lead grew quickly as they hit back-to-back threes and went on a 10-0 run to take a 65-50 lead. The Panthers couldn’t climb the mountain again, as the Lions made seven of their last eight shots, coming away with the 10-point victory.
For more info: Florida Tech @ Saint Leo Box Score
“We might have looked dead and buried in that second half but we scored 49 points in the second half and played well in a lot of areas,” said Mims. “We had more steals, forced more turnovers, and outrebounded them. The real difference came in three-pointers and free-throws.”
We would like to thank Coach Mims for his willingness to do interviews win or lose, for both home and away games. He has always been more than giving of his time and this season was no exception, despite the challenges that the team faced.