Header pic: Sean Houpt (#11), Mate Papai – Credit: Florida Tech Athletics
The Florida Tech men’s basketball season came to an end Tuesday night with an 89-77 loss to the number only undefeated team in the country, the Nova Southeastern Sharks.
It was a game effort from the Panthers, who could have folded their tent many times not only in this game but a few times down the stretch this season. They did not do that.
“We fought hard,” said Panthers coach Billy Mims. “With all the adversity we’ve dealt with since the game against FAU in December and three Covid forfeits they could have quit, but they kept battling and our only loss before tonight was a buzzer-beater at Tampa. We won four of our last five regular-season games.”
Mims said that in his 40-plus years of coaching, he can’t remember ever having to forfeit three games in a season. This was a tough campaign to navigate, thanks to the Sunshine State Conference decision to count any games that a team could not play due to Covid illness, as a loss.
“I never liked the decision that was made because you were saying to these kids, if you’re sick you’re a loser and if you are healthy you’re a winner,” he said. “When I told these kids in December that we had to forfeit these games and they would count as losses, there were tears in some of those guys’ eyes.”
Florida Tech (13-13, 7-13 SSC) was led by Sesan Russell’s 21 points. He was 8-of-18 from the field, including 4-for-9 from three-point range. Runako Ziegler was 8-for-11 from the field, and finished with 19 points, while Sean Houpt finished with 14. Houpt led the team with eight rebounds, and Mate Papai who was playing in his last game for the Panthers along with Ziegler and Ameer Bennett had six rebounds.
Florida Tech did not have an answer all night for Eddie Puisis, who had 26 points to lead all scorers. He was 9-for-17 shooting, with eight of those coming from beyond the arc. NSU had 11 threes in the first half, hitting 50 percent of their three-pointers in the opening 20 minutes.
The three-point barrage started early as Puisis and RJ Sunahara hit two threes each and helped the Sharks jump oy to a 12-6 lead. They would continue to roll, going up 25-8 on the Panthers with 12:08 left in the half.
Florida Tech got back into it with a 10-0 run that included threes from Ziegler, Houpt, and Russell, which closed the gap to 25-18. Another three by Houpt, a layup by Ziegler, and a dunk by Bennett got the Panthers to within three, 31-28, finishing off a 20-6 run.
NSU (26-0, 20-0 SSC) finished the half outsourcing the Panthers 23-12 and took a 54-40 lead at the break.
Florida Tech was 15-for-31 as a team in the first half (48.4 percent), including 7-for-15 (46.7 percent) from long distance.
“If you would have told me those were going to be our numbers in the first half, I would tell you we had to be winning,” Mims said. “I had no idea that they (NSU) were going to shoot that well.”
The Panthers started the second half scoring nine of the first 10 points including a three from Russell and a bucket from Papai. That made it 55-49 with 16:10 left. NSU scored the next five, including another three from Sunahara. That got the lead back to 10, with a Puisis three a bit later making it an 11-point lead, 62-51 with 13:31 left.
The Sharks led 77-57 with 8:57 left and the Panthers charged forward one more time with an 8-0 run, making it 77-65. The Panthers kept it between 12 and 15 the rest of the way, with Sam Grant hitting a three with 47 seconds left to give the Panthers the final basket of the night in the 12-point defeat.
For more info: Florida Tech @ NSU Box Score
“They average 100 points and we held them below that,” said Mims. “We won the second half, and we held them to 35 points.”
“To go on the road and play that well against the only undefeated team in the nation, I couldn’t be more proud,” he continued. “We came down here on a mission and were not going to get embarrassed. In the first two ball games, we didn’t compete I thought we did that tonight and had chances to steal this game and shock the world.”
When you consider that there were two teams ahead of Florida Tech that had fewer conference wins, including Palm Beach Atlantic that finished seventh, but didn’t have Covid forfeits to contend with, the Panthers should not have had to play the number one seed in the tournament. It goes back to the decisions made by this conference that make zero sense.
The question that should be asked and as a writer who has covered this team all year, I would love to ask it is this: If you are so concerned with the mental health and well being of your scholar-athletes, how on earth can you pin losses on teams that were without the required number of players due to a sickness that happened during a worldwide pandemic? The school presidents and the conference higher-ups should all take a good hard look at that decision and ask if that was truly the fair and just thing to do.
I am not making this point with only Florida Tech in mind. There were other teams forced to forfeit that shouldn’t have. There were spots to fit these games and try to make them up. If you couldn’t do that, then just don’t count them as a conference loss. I hope for the sake of these young men that the conference uses this as a learning experience and if ever they are faced with a situation like this, they do things differently.
With the season now over, I would like to thank Billy Mims for the willingness to be interviewed by phone after all the games, home or away, win or loss. He was always willing to share his thoughts, even when things were at their lowest point this season.
Good luck to Papai, Ziegler, and Bennett as they move to the next stage of their lives. Outside of those three, everyone else has eligibility left and could be back for the 2022-2023 season.