Florida International jumped in front of Middle Tennessee by nine points at the half and held on the rest of the way to stun the top-seeded Blue Raiders 61-57 Sunday night in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
The Panthers (18-13), who had blown a 17-point halftime lead to lose by two in Miami the last time these two teams met, shot only 33.3 percent from the field for the game and made only one field goal over the last six minutes.
But that layup by Deric Hill came with 12.9 seconds remaining and gave the Panthers a four-point cushion.
After Middle Tennessee's Marcos Knight countered with a quick layup to get it back to a one-possession game, Malik Smith then sealed it with two free throws with 6.9 seconds remaining.
The Panthers pretty much won the game at the free throw line, where they were 18 of 22 for the night. The Blue Raiders were only 12 of 21.
Middle Tennessee (28-5) entered the contest on a 17-game winning streak and had won its tourney opener by 15 points over Louisiana-Lafayette.
Middle Tennessee's Shawn Jones led all scorers with 17 points. Hill led FIU with 16.
FIU advanced to the Sun Belt championship game for the first time in the program's history and will take on Western Kentucky in Monday night's final at the Summit Arena in Hot Springs, Ark. The Hilltoppers beat Arkansas State 58-56 in the other semifinal.