Panthers ready for improved season


File Photo

Senior Grace Lennox brings the ball up the court in the Panthers’ 97-54 win over Millikin Nov. 2016 in Lantz Arena. Eastern hosts Indiana State Friday.

JJ Bullock, Assistant Sports Editor

Things are different this season around the Eastern women’s basketball team. Expectations are higher thanks to the addition of head coach Matt Bollant, the team finally having a league recognized game-changer in senior point guard Grace Lennox. And for the first time in a while, opposing teams view Eastern as a threat in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Before being able to fully understand what make this year’s Panther team one that has caught the eye of the rest of the Ohio Valley Conference, it is important to remember the place this program is coming from.

Last season when the Panthers lost their final game of the season to Southern Illinois Edwardsville it secured them a 5-11 conference record and a last place finish in the OVC. As poor as a 5-11 finish is, it was still a three-game improvement from the team’s 2-14 finish in 2015. Following two straight seasons of a last place finish and perpetual losing, Eastern decided it was time for a change, and Black was let go by the team.

Cue the hiring of Bollant in April, and a whirlwind of changes now have the Panthers as a team the rest of the conference is checking over their shoulders for.

Southern Illinois Edwardsville head coach Paula Buscher, whose team is returning all five of its starters and is predicted to finish second in the OVC, is expecting Bollant’s presence to produce an Eastern team that is disciplined and ready to execute its game plan on the court

“They always have great balance with Eastern and I expect that to continue,” Buscher said. “I expect them to be much improved and I’m sure he is going to do a great job there.”

If rival coaches are not talking about the new dynamic Bollant brings to the team, they are discussing Lennox and the danger she brings to the court.

“He has got some new kids, but the biggest thing people need to understand is he has got his point guard back, who is one of the better point guards in the league,” Tennessee-Martin head coach Kevin McMillan said. “Grace is really good, so if she and he can really get the team on board, they’ll have a lot better season than probably people expect, now I expect them to, but you just never know.”

Lennox averaged 16.3 points per game, 4.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds for the Panthers last season and is the focal point of the team on both sides of the ball. As good as she was last season, Bollant has noted that she has improved on her game from last season and predicted that if the team is successful, she may be a potential player of the year candidate in the OVC.

While Belmont point guard Darby Maggard was selected to win the player of the year award this season in a preseason poll, not everyone is convinced she has a leg up on Lennox.

“I love Darby Maggard at Belmont, but I’m not so sure that (Grace Lennox) is not better. I think we will see them move up the ladder this year… it should be an exciting year for (Eastern),” Morehead State head coach Greg Todd said.

Losing forward Erica Brown, who led the team with eight rebounds a game last season, to graduation will no doubt hurt the Panthers. But a full season of a healthy Jalisha Smith, who played in just nine games last year because of injury, should help replace some of the load Brown leaves behind in the front court.

If the Panthers can get growth from second-year toward Jennifer Nehls, who last season was consistently in and out of the starting lineup and who Bollant said may surprise people this season, the Panthers may have a front court duo in Smith and Nehls that will compliment Lennox.

Eastern welcomes seven newcomers to the team this season, one of which in particular is freshman and Australia native Grace McRae. Bollant started McRae in the team’s scrimmage and said the freshman did not miss one shot during the game.

The conference tournament this season is moving from Nashville to Evansville, Ind., and it is a place Bollant expects his team to be making a trip to for the tournament.

“We believe we are going to be playing in Evansville, and we are planning on that. We are working to make that happen. We will see. Obviously there is a lot of things that have to happen between now and February, but if we go into February 28th and we aren’t playing (in Evansville), I’ll be extremely disappointed.”

Eastern opens up its regular season Nov. 10 at home against Northern Illinois. Conference play begins Dec. 28 with a road game against Murray State.

The team features some key non-conference games including a road matchup with Northwestern and a home game against North Texas.

While the Panthers may not be ready to dethrone Belmont in Bollant’s first season, a much different and significantly more competitive team should be expected to take the court this season.

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]