Header pic: Runako Ziegler – Credit: Florida Tech Athletics
The Florida Tech Panthers (2-1, 1-0 SSC) ended Saturday’s game with a 14-0 run en route to an 80-72 win over the Saint Leo Lions in the Panthers home and conference opener at the Clemente Center.
Saint Leo (2-2, 0-1) is the defending Sunshine State Conference champion and they beat the Panthers in the semifinals last year, ending the Panther season. Speaking to Florida Tech coach Billy Mims last week, he made it clear that his team had this game circled on the calendar, and they played like it when it mattered on Saturday.
Runako Ziegler was the Player of the Game Saturday with his 21 points and seven rebounds. He also had five assists and three steals. Mekhii Noble finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds, notching his third double-double of the season, in three games. They were the only double figure scorers for the Panthers, but that speaks to the Panthers depth, not their struggles. To that end, Sean Houpt and Sesan Russell finished with an uncharacteristic nine points each. Russell added five assists, a steal, and four rebounds.
“Houpt had a big three in the second half, but when you look at the depth we played with tonight, Sean and Sesan didn’t have one of their best games,” said Mims in our phone interview after the game. “What it shows is that we aren’t built around one player. This is one team with one goal… find a way to win.”
The Panthers did find a way, scoring 50 points in the second half and holding a potent Lions offense scoreless for the final 4:09.
Florida Tech was 28-for-62 from the floor, shooting 45.2 percent. They were 7-for-25 from three-point range, 28 percent and hit 17-of28 free throws, good for 60.7 percent.
The Lions were 31-for-74 from the field overall, but were held to 38 percent shooting in the second half. They were 7-for-29 from three-point range, but only two of them came in the second half. They were 3-for-5 from the free throw line.
The first half saw the Panthers go down early before Russell banged down a three to tie the game at five. Noble would make a shot to give the Panthers a 7-5 lead before Saint Leo made a run to go up 16-11. Ziegler would make free throws before freshman Josh Mims knocked down his first big three of the night, tying the game at 16.
Ziegler would lay one in to make it 26-22 in favor of Saint Leo with 4:46 left but that was as close as the Panthers would get in the half. The Lions went to the locker room with a 35-30 lead.
With 4:59 gone in the second half, the Panthers found themselves down 49-35. Sam Grant would knock down a three, and the teams would trade baskets for a bit before a three by Ameer Bennett closed the gap to 10 again with 11:10 to go.
A three by Frank Webb, Jr boosted the Lions lead to 12 with 9:06 to go, but the Panthers were far from done. Noble hit one, Mate Papai was good from the line and Ziegler got a basket to cut the lead to seven with 7:26 to go.
Mims, who was a three-point machine in high school, hit his second of the night for the Panthers with 6:39 left to make it 66-62. Another hoop by Ziegler closed the gap to two, and SLU coach Lance Randall called a timeout.
Saint Leo responded, scoring four points and led 70-64. After the teams traded baskets, Saint Leo led 72-66 with 4:09 to go. That was the last basket the Lions would get, as the Panthers would reel off 14 straight points.
After Ziegler and Papai scored, Freshman Jacob Crockett would give the Panthers the lead with a huge three, making it 73-72 with 1:07 to go. Thanks to some great defense by the Panthers, causing some costly Saint Leo turnovers, Florida Tech was able to close out the game from the free throw line.
“Offensively, we exploded. We got some big, timely threes and stepped up defensively,” Mims said. “We played hard and smart.”
The Panthers bench was successful tonight, outsourcing Saint Leo’s bench 21-16. Mims attributed that to how hard his young guys work in practice.
“Those kids worked so hard this week,” he said. Jacob and Josh were on the scout team mimicking Saint Leo and ran their stuff as well as Saint Leo does. Our entire team prepared and the coaches had a great week in practice, too. This was a team win.
For more info: Saint Leo @ Florida Tech Box Score
I referenced that this game was marked on the calendar for the Panthers and there is no doubt the second meeting will be as well. There was some jawing back-and-forth at the final buzzer on Saturday, and the two teams came together on the floor. There is some leftover animosity to be sure and it will be interesting to see what happens when these teams meet again on January 22, at the Bowman Center in Saint Leo.
The Panthers start a tough stretch of four games in five days on Tuesday night when they host Puerto Rico-Bayamon on Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. They will welcome Johnson on Wednesday at 4:00 p.m., before the Thanksgiving Tournament which will take place Friday and Saturday at the Clemente Center.