Jonathan Nunez hadn’t played a second in FIU’s season opener versus Flagler. And before Friday, he hadn’t played in a crunch time scenario since Winter 2018 — his senior year at Doral Academy Preparatory High School.
But with the Panthers down seven with 10:50 remaining in the game, head coach Jeremy Ballard utilized a timeout and went to the sophomore walk-on from Miami for a spark.
With fresh legs and a lot to prove, Nunez quickly made an impact, closing out on an unboxed big man and coming down with the rebound. The very next play resulted in a fastbreak three-pointer by graduate senior Radshad Davis.
Two minutes later, Nunez passed on an open wing three and kicked out to Davis for a corner triple that cut FIU’s deficit to six. The Panthers caught fire and ignited an 8-0 scoring run to take a one-point lead with 3:34 left in the game.
Nunez made a big stop on defense, forcing an airball on a floater to maintain FIU’s lead. And two plays later, he knocked down a three to extend the Panthers’ lead to 76-72 with 2:23 remaining. His three-pointer saw FIU’s bench and coaching staff pop up their feet in excitement and awe.
As the clock winded down, senior forward Dimon Carrigan put his arm around Nunez as they walked back to the huddle and the rest of the team embraced him for his exciting performance.
What was turning into a disaster for the Panthers versus Division II Flagler, as they were down by as much as 11 in the match, resulted in an uplifting story in FIU’s 82-75 victory.
Coaches preach the next man up mentality, but for Nunez, who came off the bench in 18 games last season and averaged 4.1 minutes in those contests, the odds of him seeing the floor down the stretch were slim.
“He didn’t hear his name get called until maybe the 30th minute of the game tonight and he came in ready to make plays and to help his team win,” Ballard said. “And that’s who he is.”
Nonetheless, the 5-foot-11 guard stepped up to the plate when asked to, as he finished with three points, two rebounds and an assist through 11 minutes.
“I think it’s been great for us,” Nunez said. “It helps us grow, it helps us mature, it shows us that there are highs and lows throughout the game.”
The Panthers (2-0) got what they wanted — a win. But there’s a whole lot they’ll need to work on as they prepare for Central Michigan (0-0) on Tuesday.
FIU made less mistakes, as they turned the ball over just 10 times after doing so 18 times in the season opener. However, the Panthers shot 30-72 (41.7%) from the field, 13-41 (31.7%) from three-point range and 9-17 (52.9%) from the free-throw line.
FIU shot 11-38 (28.9%) from the floor and 3-22 (13.6%) from three in the first half. They drastically improved in the second half, shooting 19-34 (55.9%) from the field and 10-19 (52.6%) from beyond the arc.
“The main focus was to just stay confident and to keep playing loose and playing together and to not look at the score too much because we knew that the way we play there are a lot of ups and downs,” junior guard Antonio Daye, Jr. said. “We just kept playing and Radshad [Davis] hit some big shots and then Jojo [Nunez] came in and gave us great energy off the bench.”
Daye was once again the primary ball-handler, as he scored 21 points on 7-16 shooting while adding three assists and four steals.
But when it came down to the big shots late in the second half, Davis delivered. The UT Arlington transfer sank six of his seven three-pointers in the second half and notched a team-high 28 points. Davis also recorded a game-high nine rebounds and five steals.
“I just do what we do in practice,” Davis said. “Go out there and compete and let everything handle itself.”
Carrigan made his presence felt down low once again, as he registered nine points and seven rebounds while blocking three shots in consecutive games. His 3-8 (37.5%) shooting from the charity stripe will need to improve for him to help FIU in late-game scenarios.