Panthers stay proud as season ends

Jehad Abbed, Assistant Sports Editor

The Eastern men’s basketball team finished the season with an 18-15 overall record including the school’s first postseason win since becoming a Division-I program.

This year’s Panthers proved to be one of Eastern’s more successful teams midway through the season when they started their Ohio Valley Conference play with six-straight wins, which was the school’s best conference start in more than 10 years.

The Panthers went on a nine-game winning streak that lasted from December 13 to January 17 before losing to the eventual OVC champions, Murray State University.

Eastern coach Jay Spoonhour said his players do not realize how big of a deal and how special the winning streak was, being one of the longest in the nation at that point.

“It wasn’t a nine-game winning streak with a bunch of J.V. squads. It was real ball,” Spoonhour said. “They’re young. They just think they’re supposed to go do that. That may be something they understand better as they look back on it.”

The Panthers faced an unfortunate amount of adversity following the impressive early start in conference play.

It was rare to see the team at full force after the winning streak. Eastern’s depth was tested throughout the season and even as recent as its season-ending loss Monday night during the 2nd round of the Collegeinsider.com tournament.

The two leading scorers in junior forwards Trae Anderson and Chris Olivier missed a combined nine games because of injury and illness.

Anderson was the Panthers’ top scorer with 13.2 points per game in his first year after transferring from Southwestern Illinois College. He missed three games with a severe ankle sprain.

Olivier missed six games after being diagnosed with mononucleosis just days after the winning streak. He came back in full form to end the season just behind Anderson in terms of scoring, averaging 13 points per game while shooting just under 55 percent.

Eastern brought in players this year that contributed largely to the success almost immediately.

Senior guard Dylan Chatman said the newest additions to the Panthers’ squad gave them something they may have been missing.

“When we got the new players this year, they really brought something extra to the team,” Chatman said. “I think they’ll go even further next year because they’ve put in the work.”

Freshman guard Cornell Johnston and junior guard LeTrell Viser were two of the newcomers along with Anderson that played major roles in the Panthers’ winning season.

Johnston earned the OVC Freshman of the Year award while starting every game for the Panthers this season. He averaged the 3rd most assists in the conference and led the OVC in 3-point field goal percentage shooting nearly 52 percent from behind the line.

Viser led one of the conference’s best defenses while being a top-15 player in steals per game.

The Panthers allowed just under 65 points per game while forcing opponents to shoot 41 percent on the year.

Eastern was a top-5 team in most defensive categories including blocked shots and 3-point field goal percentage defense.

The Panthers finished with a 9-7 OVC record after being projected to finish near the bottom of the conference before the season started.

“They need to really be proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Spoonhour said. “I’m really proud of these guys that they’ve put us in this position.”

 

Jehad Abbed can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]