BOCA RATON, Fla. - The Stetson men's basketball team (3-7) defeated Florida Atlantic (5-6) by a score of 69-68 on the road Tuesday night as junior Chris Perez's buzzer-beater snapped the Hatters' six-game losing streak in Boca Raton.
"It feels great to get a win, finally," Perez said immediately following the game. "I saw [junior] Aaron [Graham], he shot it, and the ball didn't hit the rim," the guard continued on about the final play. "My guy didn't box me out, so my first thought was just to go rebound, and throw it up there. Thank God it went in."
The Hatters were put in position to need a buzzer-beater after a two-point lead with 14 seconds remaining turned into a one-point deficit when FAU's standout Greg Gantt hit a three-pointer from well beyond the arc, off balance, and a defender in his face.
Down 68-67 with just seven second left, Graham brought the ball up court quickly, but was forced into a tough shot near the top of the key. Perez reacted quickly, zeroing in on the ball, grabbing the rebound and finishing off the layup just as the buzzer sounded.
"I'm proud that we found a way," Stetson head coach Casey Alexander said. "It wasn't the traditional way, and we had a guy make a big play at the end, but it was a whole lot more than that. We had a lot of big plays made in the second half when it would have been easy for a team that has lost six in a row to kind of throw in the towel. We didn't do it. We found a way."
The Owls used a 7-0 run early in the first half to take an 11-4 lead over the Hatters with 14:46 to play in the period. Stetson countered with seven straight points, beginning with a dunk from senior Adam Pegg after senior Joel Naburgs found him on a dish in the lane. A jump hook by Pegg was quickly followed by a triple from Naburgs when Pegg found him when doubled in the post, which tied the game at 11-11 with 13:23 to play in the frame.
The runs continued when FAU used an 11-0 stretch to extend its lead to 22-11 just over three minutes later. The Hatters stopped the bleeding when sophomore Dennis Diaz hit a three with 10:07 to play in the half. A lob from Naburgs into Pegg in the post was finished off by the Stetson center, drawing the foul, and knocking down the free throw to cut the Owl lead to five, at 22-17.
FAU increased its first half advantage to as many as 12, but Pegg, Stetson's three-point shooting, and holding down FAU's Gantt kept the Hatters in the game. Pegg finished the half with 11 points, on 4-of-7 shooting, Naburgs and Graham each tallied two treys in the period, and Gantt was forced into 2-of-12 shooting to make it 41-32 at the break.
Like on Saturday in Richmond, Stetson started out hot in the second half, scoring the first four points on a jumper by Naburgs and two free throws from Perez. However, it was the Hatters' defense early on and throughout the second period that propelled the team to victory on Tuesday night. Stetson allowed FAU just 11 points through the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Finally forcing the Owls into turnovers, the Hatters capitalized on 12 giveaways by FAU in the second half, including a steal by Graham that led to a breakaway dunk by junior Willie Green to make it 52-48. After another Owl turnover on the next possession, a conventional three-point play by Graham cut the FAU lead to one point, at 52-51 with 10:43 to play.
The owls quickly countered though, scoring six straight points over a minute-and-a-half span to regain the advantage. In similar situations throughout the team's six-game skid, the Hatters could have subconsciously thrown in the towel, as Alexander alluded to. Stetson didn't.
Two more free throws by Perez opened a 9-0 run for the Hatters that included four more points from the junior guard, and concluded with a triple from Graham that gave Stetson its first lead since taking a 2-0 advantage on the first bucket of the game.
The two teams battled back and forth, with Stetson leading by as many as three points, at 66-63 with 1:27 to play, when Perez stole the ball from Gantt and went in for the layup on the break. A layup by FAU's Pablo Bertone and one-of-two free throws by Graham gave Stetson the two-point lead the led to the intense final minute.
Perez, along with scoring the game-winning basket, led the Hatters with 16 points and seven rebounds. Graham also scored 16 points, and tallied a game high four steals to help the Stetson defense. Pegg added 15 points and seven boards, while Naburgs chipped in with 10 points and a team-best five assists.
The Hatters finished with 10 steals and forced the Owls into 15 turnovers. Stetson also shot 12-for-13 from the free throw line, including a 6-for-6 performance from the charity stripe by Perez. Pegg went 3-for-3 from the line, while Graham was 3-for-4.
While he finished with 23 points for the game, Stetson did a great job defensively on Gantt during the contest. The FAU guard went 8-for-25 from the floor, and was just 3-of-12 from three-point range. Bertone added 12 points, while Andre Mattison chipped in with 10 in the loss.
Stetson snapped its six-game losing streak, and will next play at Central Florida rival UCF on Thursday, Dec. 20. The Hatters and the Knights will tip off at 7:00 p.m. in Orlando with television coverage on CSS, as well as radio coverage on 1230 AM, 1490 AM, and myam1230.com.