The game is set for a 7 p.m. start and web streaming will be available through Hatter Vision at GoHatters.com. Stetson comes into the game with a 23-10 record after falling to FGCU in the Atlantic Sun Conference title game. FIU is 22-10 and advanced to the Sun Belt Conference semifinals, falling to Middle Tennessee.
In addition to making the program’s first WNIT appearance, the game marks the renewal of an old rivalry from the early days of the Atlantic Sun Conference, back in the days when the league was known as the Trans-America Athletic Conference (TAAC). Stetson and FIU have not faced each other since the 1997-98 season, the Panthers’ last in the league.
FIU owns a commanding all-time series lead of 28-4 and is making its sixth appearance in the WNIT, all under head coach Cindy Russo, who is in her 33rd season guiding the Panthers program.
Stetson coach Lynn Bria, who is in her fourth season with the Hatters, marvels at the success Russo has had at FIU.
“They have the same type of players they have always had,” Bria said of the Panthers. “Cindy has been there a long time and that is a credit to her. They have kept it up, even though they have changed conferences, and continued to win. They have always had a lot of foreign players.”
This year’s FIU team is no different, with players from Serbia, Hungary, England, Russia and Croatia along with a mix of Florida natives and one player from Oklahoma. The Panthers normally start three players from Hungary, one from Croatia and one very special player from Florida.
That player will be the key for the Hatters. Slowing sophomore guard Jerica Coley, a product of St. Petersburg, Fla., is something few teams have been able to do. She is FIU's leader in scoring (23.2 ppg), assists (122), blocks (60) and second leading rebounder (6.8).
“They have an outstanding point guard,” Bria said. “The more I look at them, the more I think that they are similar to us. The run behind their point guard. She leads them in a lot of categories, including rebounds and assists. She has taken most of their shots, similar to Victoria, but the similarities stop there.”
Stetson junior guard Victoria McGowan (Inkster, Mich.) is a similar all-around player for the Hatters. She leads Stetson in scoring (16.6), assists (116) and steals (86) and is second on the team in rebounding at 6.8 per game. McGowan also leads the nation, having recorded three triple-doubles this year.
Both Coley and McGowan were first team All-Conference performers and both were selected as their respective league’s players of the year. The similarities are striking, and the matchup of the two will certainly be a key component in deciding a winner on Thursday night.
“We are going to guard her by committee,” Bria said of Coley. “We never like to put Victoria on the other team’s point guard the whole game because it takes a lot to do both. Victoria will be on her some, and she will probably guard Victoria. They really only play five players, so I am sure they will guard each other some, and that will be the biggest matchup.”
Beyond the matchup of point guards, the game will likely be decided on the glass. Stetson has been outrebounded this year by 2.4 per game, while FIU has three players who average better than six rebounds per game, helping the Panthers outrebound foes by 3.5 per game.
The international players FIU puts on the floor gives the Panthers a little different style of play from other teams, especially around the basket.
“Their post players have good touch around the basket, but they are not power post players,” Bria said. “They are more finesse players with good skills. They rebound well. I think rebounding will be a big key to this game. They rebound very well, so we have to keep them off the glass and, in turn, we have to rebound. We have our work cut out for us.”
If the Hatters come away from Miami with a win on Thursday, Stetson would turn around for a second road game on Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s game between Florida Atlantic and USF in Tampa. The Hatters saw both teams during the regular season, defeating FAU in DeLand, and losing a tough battle with USF in Tampa.
“We know those teams very well because we played them both during the season,” Bria said. “Florida Atlantic did very well in their league and USF is big and athletic.”
The quick turnaround should not be a problem for the Hatters, who have not played in two weeks since the A-Sun Tournament final.
“I think they are ready to play someone else because you would always rather play in games than in practice,” Bria said. “I think they are excited to play and excited to be in the WNIT.
“They are a good team. We saw them early and they have gotten better as the year has gone on. We just need to play our game. It is going to come down to who gets the most stops. The defense is going to be really important in this game, for both teams.”