By MEL SUITER
SAN ANTONIO, Fla. — Happy Thanksgiving!
Saint Leo University celebrated Thanksgiving Day early by defeating Florida Tech University 75-70, for the Lions’ first victory in the conference and improving their overall record to 5-1 this season, but there was plenty of drama late in the game.
Just another typical Saturday night plus the excitement of opening night of basketball in the Sunshine State Conference. At home, inside the Marion Bowman Activity Center on the campus of Saint Leo University, the action on the court gave the crowd a good preview of the up and coming attraction from the conference.
It looked like midway in the second half with an 18 point lead for the Lions, that there was no chance that the Panthers would be able to come back.
Florida Tech deployed a confusing full press defense that Saint Leo University had some trouble finding the answer to and almost allowed the Panthers to escape the Jungle with a win.
In the first half, the Lions finished the half with a 10-0 run and took the lead into the locker room. Leading the way for the Lions senior guard Kyran McClure, he finished the game with 21 points and four assists.
The defense for the Lions in the first half held the Panthers down on the floor, only allowing Florida Tech University to shoot 34.8 percent from the field.
At the start of the second half the game plan for Saint Leo University was to work the ball from the perimeter and get the ball inside into the paint area. The plan was working and it forced the Panthers defense to collapse.
Lions’ senior post player Tyler Carter took advantage of the sagging defense. He would go to work in the paint, getting physical under the basket and when he had the chance, he would drive the ball into the basket. Carter finished the game with 11 points and five rebounds.
A sticky man-on-man defense played by the Lions forced the Panthers to turn the ball over 21 times and the Lions transformed those turnovers into 23 points.
Saint Leo University basketball coach Lance Randall had several options and a good rotation from his players from the bench. Leading the Lions forward Gintaras Bartaskas who came into the game scored 12 points and shot 50 percent from the floor.
“We got great scoring in the second half and Kyran, G.B. and T.C. they preserve for us and got some salvation for us,” Randall said about the win. “We were up by 16 points, unfortunately we had some moments going down the stretch. You can’t foul this team in those situations and put a team like that on the line.”
Then it happened!
With six minutes left in the ball game, Florida Tech University unleashed a dynamic, full court press that would force the ball to the wing and then that would create a trap situation against the Lions, creating 16 turnovers and allowing the Panthers to gain momentum and have a chance to win the game.
“We did not execute our press breaker,” Randall said about his team against the full court press defense. “It was a teaching moment.”
Florida Tech University created a lot of physical play under the basket and in the paint area, the full court defense created some exciting moments for the Lions. It was the Panthers inability not to block out and giving up offensive rebounds that helped the Lions to keep this win.
Saint Leo University was able to get 11 offensive rebounds and keep the basketball for a second chance at the basket but ironically, the Lions were out rebounded by the Panthers 36-34 for the game.
Florida Tech University basketball coach Billy Mims said after the game, his team played their style of basketball by being physical and he thought that the press gave the Panthers a chance.
“Both teams made some sloppy play early but both teams are fighters,” Mims said before boarding the bus. “They fought and we fought back. They made two big runs one at the end of the first half and then they went on a 22-7 run, I thought both teams were very competitive.”
Mims also described the action on the court as a typical Sunshine State Conference basketball game, with good drama and great action out on the court.
“It is the ACC of Division 2 basketball,” Mims said describing the basketball competition in the Sunshine State Conference. “I don’t know why they don’t pack the stands for games! For six bucks, I don’t care where you come from, if you come from Dade City, San Antonio or anywhere else around here it is the best entertainment for the money!”
Florida Tech University sophomore center Sesean Russell lead all players with 22 points for the game. Panther’s junior forward Nieja Jordan leading all players with 11 rebounds, he also scored eight points for the Panthers.
Saint Leo University will take some time off for the holiday and spend some time away from the court and the rigerious basketball season. Spend some quality time just celebrating the holiday with friends and family.
The next game for the Lions will be a road trip to the city of Lakeland, Fla. to participate in the Terrace Hotel Thanksgiving Classic hosted by Florida Southern College.
The first contest for the Lions will be against Valdosta State University, Friday evening Nov. 29 starting at 5:30 p.m. The second game for the Lions will be played Saturday Nov 30, starting at 5:30 p.m.