Thomas, FIU beat Florida Memorial 88-82
MIAMI (AP)—There were a few trappings Tuesday to remind Isiah Thomas of his NBA days—dancers, T-shirt tosses and rap blaring on the PA system.
For the most part, though, Thomas is starting over. And he earned his first victory as a college coach when Florida International won its home opener, beating Florida Memorial 88-82.
The Golden Panthers improved to 1-3 in Thomas’ first season.
“It feels great,” Thomas said. “Every coach, when he or she starts, especially after you’ve lost three games, you start wondering if you’re ever going to win a game. I told the guys at halftime, ‘I don’t care how we win. I just want to win the game, go home, rub my dog, wake up in the morning and see the sun.”’
Thomas’ goal is for FIU to crack the Top 25 someday, but the buzz for his program is building slowly. In a gym that seats 5,000, attendance was 2,726, even though the top ticket price was $10. Most of the first row behind the Panthers’ bench was empty.
That means there’s lots of room for growth at a school with an enrollment of nearly 40,000. Thomas said he can envision the gym being full soon.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “And it’s the type of gym that can be a huge home-court advantage. It can get very loud. If we can fill it up and get the right type of energy going, we can create a little magic in this building.”
FIU gave Thomas a chance to revive a coaching career derailed by his troubled tenure with the New York Knicks. And Thomas gives FIU a chance to transform a program that has lost a lot lately and never drawn much attention. Most of the banners above the court are for the women’s basketball program.
For the home opener he wore Knicks colors—a blue suit, blue and white shirt and orange tie—which was surely a coincidence. He received the biggest cheer during pregame introductions but drew little attention to himself once the game began. He never paced, rarely even stood, didn’t challenge any calls and mostly watched quietly.
“We have a new group, and it’s a young group,” he said. “If there are mistakes being made, our team is not playing with a lot of confidence, and my job is to calm them and soothe them.”
Once when Thomas stood to holler out a play, FIU quickly scored. He later did it again, and the result was a turnover.
When an especially sloppy sequence sent Florida Memorial to the foul line, Thomas hung his head and pinched the bridge of his nose as if fighting a headache.
“He’s very calm,” said Panthers forward Marvin Roberts, who had 14 points and 13 rebounds. “But we know when he’s not being laid back. His facial expressions, a little shake of the head—we know.”
Junior-college transfer Phil Gary Jr. scored a season-high 27 points for FIU. His father and Thomas played against each other in high school.
“I met coach Thomas when I was 11 and he coached the Indiana Pacers,” Gary said. “It’s crazy how I ended up here.”
Thomas’ tallest starter was 6-foot-5, and his bench isn’t deep—he used only seven players until the final minute. The Panthers’ 21 turnovers were a problem, too.
FIU beat Florida Memorial by 26 points last season but struggled to put the game away. Roberts’ 3-pointer gave the Panthers the lead to stay with 2 1/2 minutes left.
Roberts wears No. 11, Thomas’ old number.
“Marvin asked for it,” Thomas said.
The Miami Heat-Cleveland Cavaliers game last week on the other side of the town drew such celebrities as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dara Torres. FIU spokesman Rich Kelch said Thomas was the only VIP at Tuesday’s game.
“Nobody can outshine the coach,” Kelch said with a laugh.
It may remain that way at FIU for at least a while.