FIU women’s basketball surges to Conference USA tourney after Cinderella season (includes video story)

The Florida International University women’s basketball team closed out its 2023-2024 season with a 20-10 record. Its first twenty-win season since FIU became a Conference USA school back in 2013.

The Panthers finished with an 11-5 record in conference play to successfully clinch the third seed in the Conference USA tournament set for Huntsville, Alabama on March 12. 

And yet, head coach Jesyka Burks-Wiley says her players prefer to see themselves the “hunters, not the hunted.” 

Outside of the team’s added talent, Coach Burks credits the change in attitude to success.

“Our kids.. are so incredibly competitive,” says Burks. “That for us has been the changing thing. Yeah, I think we have way more depth this year, but I think … we’re so much more prepared for these moments.” 

After losing four out of their first seven, the Panthers ignited an eight-game winning streak – the program’s longest since 2004 – just in time for the start of conference play. 

Players who had excelled the year before like Kaliah Henderson and Maria Torres were still key to the team’s success. But the main story were of the fresh faces that carved out roles for themselves with ease. 

Mya Kone, a sophomore transfer from James Madison University, blossomed into the Panthers’ leading scorer off the bench. Kone says her standout performances are a direct result of the work that she and the team do behind the scenes. 

“You can see it when we are playing,” says Kone. “We just want to hold each other accountable and make each other better. Empty our tanks every game and give our best.”

The Panthers’ journey to the top of Conference USA did not come without a series of major roadblocks though. 

In the span of just four games, FIU lost two starters in Torres and Ajae Yoakum to season-ending injuries. The loss of the senior forwards left the Panthers roster, outside of center Courtney Prenger, severely undersized. 

Yoakum was also a significant loss on the offensive end. In her second year as a Panther, the junior college transfer had nearly doubled her points per game average of 5.6 last season to 10.4 . 

FIU managed to steady the ship despite the crucial losses. No matter the level of adversity, the players’ bond and belief in one another never faltered. 

Kaliah Henderson, who was undisputedly the team’s best player last year and one of the top guards in the entire conference, embraced her role as FIU’s vocal leader on and off the court. 

A veteran presence who will be vital to the Panthers’ tournament success, Henderson recognizes the importance of the energy she brings day-in and day-out.

“I just feel like me being me and just bringing more energy, it just allows everybody else to be more comfortable and more confident in themselves,” says Henderson. “So I just want to be that person for them. It doesn’t have to be scoring.”

The Panthers know that the road to winning the Conference USA tournament and potentially making an appearance in the final dance of March Madness will be tough.

FIU would not only have to get past undefeated Middle Tennessee, which has dominated the conference for the past decade, but it is also set to face a scrappy New Mexico State team that upset it in the final game of the season on Saturday.

Nonetheless, Coach Burks believes that losses throughout the year have helped build the chip that her squad carries on its shoulder.

“You look back in time and you just know… they are looking forward to the next one,” says Burks. 

FIU’s quarterfinal game against New Mexico State University is set to tip off Thursday at 3 p.m.

Anthony Cruz is a freshmen majoring in Digital Media and Communications. He hopes to pursue a career in sports broadcasting.