Panthers not stressing over top-seed Racers


Justin Brown

Senior Montell Goodwin eyes up his defender in Eastern’s loss to Belmont Jan. 11. The Panthers host Murray State for one of its final two regular season games Thursday in Lantz Arena..

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

Senior Muusa Dama is not letting himself or the rest of the men’s basketball team get psyched out about having to play conference-leader Murray State Thursday while fighting for the No. 7 spot in the OVC Tournament.

Eastern’s next two games will determine its spot in the tournament, and Murray State will make Saturday’s game more meaningful when Eastern hosts Southern Illinois Edwardsville, which is also fighting for the final two spots.

“I don’t think anybody cares who we play at this point,” Dama said. “We’ve pretty much got our system and what’s going to be more important is (playing defense and playing hard) instead of the seeding and the positioning.”

Murray State is still a tough team and coach Jay Spoonhour thinks the Racers are playing as good of defense as they have in the past few years.

Offensively, they can be lights out, as the last time the Panthers squared off with the Racers, four players were in double figures.

“(Ja) Morant and (Jonathan) Stark really play together well,” Spoonhour said. “I think (Shaq) Buchanan does a lot for them that kind of goes unnoticed.”

It would have been easy to write off the Panthers two months ago when they lost three point guards, and then losing their fourth later on, but somehow Eastern found a way to make it to the tournament.

Nearly the whole team was playing in unfamiliar positions trying to combat the lack of point guards available, and following Eastern’s clinching win Saturday against Tennessee-Martin, Spoonhour called it an accomplishment.

“(We were) just believing,” Dama said. “We fought a rough season and the thing is, no matter what the outcome of a weekend was, we came out on the Monday and practice was usually energetic and saying that there was faith that we could make it, and here we are.”

The only two Panthers on the team that has OVC Tournament experience is injured senior point guard Terrell Lewis and junior Lucas Jones.

Lewis has had to watch different players try to play his position this year. Senior Montell Goodwin and freshman Mack Smith have picked up a lot of the slack at the guard spots.

Before Jan. 18 against Tennessee-Martin, Smith was just another player in the Panthers’ lineup, playing average minutes ranging from 14 to a rare 31-minute game.

Jan. 18, he made his mark dropping a season-high 22 points in 32 minutes and has scored in double digits in eight out of the next nine games, breaking his season high twice.

“T (Lewis) helped me when he figured out I could shoot as well as him,” Smith said. “But he didn’t know I could handle the ball a little more so he was just teaching me moves and combos and when to pass and teaching me the game.”

Smith stepped up in some of the biggest games this season and has performed well, and has Lewis to thank for that, he said.

Someone needed to play the harsh minutes alongside Goodwin, who pushed 40 minutes each night. With some glimpses of being tired, Goodwin made it through it and helped lead Eastern to the OVC Tournament, which it missed last year.

He has never been on a team that has had to deal with injuries the way Eastern has.

“Dealing with the injuries has been a journey itself,” Goodwin said. “We always say ‘we’re all we got’ and stick to it. I prepared myself by going to training twice a day to make sure my body is ready to go.”

The OVC Tournament is a first for everyone on the roster besides Lewis and Jones, but for the freshman and seniors alike, the goal is the same.

Smith gets to experience it in his first year, with likely three more promising years ahead, and Goodwin is looking to cap of his college career on a high note.

But before that, Eastern tips off with Murray State Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Lantz Arena.

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