ESTERO — Christophe Varidel hasn’t started a single game this season for Florida Gulf Coast University.
Thursday night, off the bench, the junior started a first-half rally and led the Eagles to a 76-73 victory over Florida International.
Varidel, who started 20 games two seasons ago, poured in 16 first-half points and then made the clinching free throws to thwart a big Golden Panthers rally in front of a crowd of 1,803 at Alico Arena.
Varidel’s only free throws — both swishes — came with just 5.6 seconds left and after FIU leading scorer Malik Smith missed a runner and FGCU senior guard Sherwood Brown pulled down the rebound with 10 ticks remaining.
“I felt I could give a contribution,” Varidel said. “I’m not really having a good year, but I’ll turn it around. That’s what I was trying to do tonight.”
It was the first game for FGCU (7-4) in nine days and the Eagles led from start to finish. They attacked the lane for seven dunks and generally kept FIU (3-4) at bay despite 10 3-pointers by the Golden Panthers, who are led by first-year coach Richard Pitino, son of Louisville coach Rick and a candidate for the FGCU job when then-Florida State assistant Andy Enfield scored the position in March 2011.
“I thought we played really well in the first half,” said Enfield, in his second season at FGCU. “In the second half, I thought we played solid, but we gave them 11 extra possessions. We played well enough to win, but we let them have a chance to steal the game at the end. They’re a good team, but that was really on us.”
The Eagles, still surging to their best-ever start in this sixth Division I season, next play Southeastern at home Tuesday night.
Remember Varidel? He was an all-freshman Atlantic Sun guard after starting 20 of 30 games, averaging 11.5 points and ranking second in the A-Sun with 2.6 3-point makes per game. His 78 3-pointers were the fifth-most by a Division I freshman. Seventeen times he made three or more treys in a game.
Since then, FGCU’s talent has risen dramatically under Enfield and Varidel’s minutes have plummeted. He started six games as a sophomore and averaged 9.2 points in 21.5 minutes. Heading into the FIU game, Varidel was averaging just 5.6 points in 17.9 minutes.
But he’s FGCU’s go-to sixth man and a the 6-foot-2, 170-pound guard is a whirlwind of energy. Tuesday night, Varidel showed why the Eagles still consider him so vital to their success.
In the first half, Varidel made 4-of-6 3-point attempts, a couple seemingly as far away as his native Switzerland.
“He played great,” Enfield said. “He had energy. He shot the ball well. He defended. Exceptional game tonight.”
With the Golden Panthers raining 3-point swishes, Enfield went to Varidel early. His 3-pointer from deep top-left helped blunt an FIU run and built FGCU’s lead to 19-14. A Varidel trey from the right corner made it 28-21. Another Varidel 3 made it 40-30, and his fourth of the half and last of the game with 18 seconds left swelled the Eagles’ lead to 43-31 at intermission.
FGCU shot 55.6 percent from the field and outscored FIU 51-26 in the paint and 13-4 on fast breaks. Varidel and junior forward Chase Fieler led FGCU with 18 points each. It was a season-high for Varidel and Fieler had his second straight 18-point game, career highs.
“They showed heart coming back in the second half, and that was nice,” Pitino said of his players. “But we need 40 minutes of that type of effort, that type of togetherness. But it comes down to getting stops. You will beat nobody when a team shoots 56 percent for the game. We’re just not that good offensively. That’s our biggest problem right now.”
Gaby Belardo led FIU with 17 points.
FIU had a mid-second half flurry, closing to within 60-55, but the Eagles, charged by Brown and sophomore guard Bernard Thompson, went into pressing mode, scoring seven points — four on slams — in 90 seconds to regain control at 67-55 with seven minutes left.
But the Golden Panthers, who won last weekend at Stetson, a team expected to stay with the A-Sun front-runners, clawed within 68-66 with 3:17 left, thanks largely to eight misses in 10 free-throw attempts.
“We’re a much better shooting team than that,” Enfield said. “That happens. You play a 31-game schedule, you’re going to struggle at times. Luckily Christophe made the two with five seconds left to steal it.”
A Thompson drive with 1:29 left gave FGCU a seemingly comfortable 74-59 lead with 1:29 left, but four straight free throws inched FIU back into striking position.
FGCU 76, FIU 73
Murphy 7-9 1-2 15, Akomolafe 2-6 2-2 7, Jurkovic 0-1 0-0 0, Belardo 6-12 2-5 17, Smith 4-15 2-4 14, Hill 1-1 0-0 2, Porcher Jimenez 1-3 1-2 4, Frink 4-7 1-4 10, Ferrales 0-5 4-4 4, De La Rosa 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-60 13-23 73.
Fieler 8-11 2-4 18, Murray 2-4 0-0 4, Comer 6-11 2-4 14, Thompson 6-9 2-7 14, Brown 2-5 1-2 5, Varidel 5-10 4-4 18, McKnight 1-1 1-2 3, Cvjeticanin 0-2 0-0 0, Graf 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 30-54 12-23 76.
Halftime—Florida Gulf Coast 43-31. 3-Point Goals—FIU 10-29 (Smith 4-11, Belardo 3-8, Porcher Jimenez 1-2, Frink 1-2, Akomolafe 1-4, Ferrales 0-2), Florida Gulf Coast 4-16 (Varidel 4-7, Thompson 0-1, Fieler 0-1, Graf 0-1, Cvjeticanin 0-2, Brown 0-2, Comer 0-2). Fouled Out—Frink, Murphy. Rebounds—FIU 34 (Frink 10), Florida Gulf Coast 34 (Brown 9). Assists—FIU 10 (Belardo 7), Florida Gulf Coast 13 (Comer 7). Total Fouls—FIU 19, Florida Gulf Coast 20. Technicals—Belardo, Thompson. A—1,803.