Eastern, Illini square off in sold-out game

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

A Big 10 opponent, thousands of dollars raised for hurricane relief and a sold out Lantz Arena is what the men’s basketball team’s game with the University of Illinois brings to the table.

The game was scheduled just one week before game day with talks starting Oct. 24. It is an exhibition game for both teams, which gives Eastern a free look at a Big 10 opponent before starting its regular season on the road at Nebraska, another Big 10 team.

Friday’s games, with the women playing before the men, are about raising money for hurricane victims.

Coach Jay Spoonhour said there is no drawback to playing this game and that everything that comes out of Friday is a good thing.

“This will be a really nice thing,” Spoonhour said. “It’s great for the local fans, local Illinois fans who get to see their team play, it’s good for our fans, you get to see Illinois (for the first time). That’s pretty neat for how many years Eastern has been here.”

The Panthers bring back a core group of players with four seniors leading the charge. Terrell Lewis is the longest standing Panther on the roster, Muusa Dama, Montell Goodwin and Ray Crossland, who all played their first year as Panthers in 2016-2017.

That team was not able to make the tournament, but a rejuvenated squad is ready to get the Panthers back to the tournament.

Eastern brought in a few key pieces to fill the gaps that Eastern had last year. The Panthers brought in players who are able to drive to the basket, and how Spoonhour wants it sometimes, getting fouled.

Lewis would drive last year, but he was not able to draw the fouls.

Eastern brought in guys that are able to do that, Spoonhour said.

The Panthers do have a string of shooters who can go off on any given night. Last year when the shooting was there, the Panthers were able to shoot out a win, but the games where it was not, they did not have a driving game to fall back on.

Having both this season gives Eastern a different look. Eastern Kentucky’s coach Dan McHale said Eastern might be the team to beat in the OVC.

The University of Illinois came away with a 20-15 record in 2016-2017 and an 8-10 record inside the Big 10.

The Illini have a new coach in Brad Underwood after he took the reigns of the program in March.

The women and Indiana State go head-to-head in their charity game 4 p.m.

The men’s team and the University of Illinois have a tipoff time of 7 p.m.

The game sold out in just over 24 hours, and the first 450 students wearing blue with a Panther Card will be let in.

The last time Eastern filled the stadium like Friday will be was in 2014 against Murray State.

Sean Hastings can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]