Smith drops 31, helps Panthers win


Sean Hastings

Freshman Mack Smith looks to make a play at the top of the arc in the Panthers’ 79-71 win over Tennessee Tech Saturday in Lantz Arena. Smith set the Eastern freshman record for points in a game with 31.

Sean Hastings , Sports Editor


Freshman Mack Smith is not playing like a typical freshman for a Division-I basketball team.

He is playing with raw confidence that is relevant every time he pulls up for a three-pointer, drives to the hoop, or comes bolting down from the top of the arc to grab a rebound in the paint.

Eastern led 44-43 with 12:22 left in the game Saturday against Tennessee Tech, until Smith took a pass from walk-on redshirt sophomore Shawn Wilson and drilled a three-pointer.

Fast forward 23 seconds and Smith connected again. A fired up Smith looked to an equally as fired up Lantz Arena student section with his tongue out and a big smile on his face as he gave Eastern a 50-43 lead, forcing Tennessee Tech to call a timeout.

His back-to-back threes propelled the Eastern men’s basketball team to a 79-71 win to snap a four-game skid.

He also set the freshman single game scoring record with 31 points.

“I’m glad the coach (Jay Spoonhour) can trust me,” Smith said. “As a freshman coming out of high school, I’m playing with the big boys. He threw me in the fire with the dogs and I just have to go out there and eat.”

Smith and senior Montell Goodwin are handling most of the scoring for Eastern. That is just how things have to be with the Panthers having three guards out with injuries.

Those two “brothers” scored 54 out of the Panthers’ 79 points Saturday, but Eastern turned to a rotation that three months ago would have been late-game subs. But on Saturday, top to bottom, those players stepped up.

Wilson played 27 minutes, junior Lucas Jones played 28 and junior Aboubacar Diallo played 26.

Wilson in particular impressed Spoonhour. Spoonhour said Wednesday that if Wilson got in the game, he would be ready, but they were not going to expect him to “save the day.”

But Spoonhour said, aside from Smith’s 31-point performance, Eastern does not win without the former team manager Wilson stepping up.

“Shawn is a good ball handler and he defends. He’s quick,” Spoonhour said. “He got through screens, he’s going to make mistakes, because he hasn’t played in four years. He picked the exact right times to go try and do something.”

Even after the high praise, Spoonhour said he does not want Wilson to get too proud of himself, because there are seven games left and he is going to have to do that again.

Wilson finished with six assists, as well as a few flashy cuts and crossovers through the lane for layups at the end of the shot clock. He also found junior Lucas Jones on the baseline for a short jumper after a cut through the lane.

“Those are big plays,” Spoonhour said. “We needed the guy (Wilson).”

Smith and Goodwin have the most responsibilities right now for the Panthers. Goodwin has to bring the ball up the court, he has to be a scorer and he has to try and make plays for other guys as well.

“We know every game we feel like we have to be more responsible and more accountable of making plays and making big shots and tough shots,” Smith said. “But we always have faith in our guys coming in to make plays and stay focused just like (Saturday).”

Saturday was the first time over the four-game skid that Eastern’s second half showed consistent play and lots of scoring.

Smith attributed the strong performance to simply having more chemistry.

“Shawn (Wilson) went to the bucket, LJ (Jones) got rebounds and he made a few shots. We were just having fun out there and we looked like a team,” Smith said.

The win keeps Eastern in the OVC Tournament hunt and keeps them on pace with the bottom of the conference fighting for the No. 8 spot in the tournament.

Eastern, Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville are all 4-8 in OVC play. Tennessee State is in the No. 7 spot right now at 7-5.

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