Men’s basketball team to open conference tournament against No. 6 Tennessee State

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Men’s basketball team to open conference tournament against No. 6 Tennessee State

Senior Montell Goodwin dribbles past a Southern Illinois Edwardsville defender in Eastern’s final home game win Saturday. Eastern plays Tennessee State Wednesday in the first round of the OVC Tournament in Evansville, Ind.

Senior Montell Goodwin dribbles past a Southern Illinois Edwardsville defender in Eastern’s final home game win Saturday. Eastern plays Tennessee State Wednesday in the first round of the OVC Tournament in Evansville, Ind.

Karina Delgado

Senior Montell Goodwin dribbles past a Southern Illinois Edwardsville defender in Eastern’s final home game win Saturday. Eastern plays Tennessee State Wednesday in the first round of the OVC Tournament in Evansville, Ind.

Karina Delgado

Karina Delgado

Senior Montell Goodwin dribbles past a Southern Illinois Edwardsville defender in Eastern’s final home game win Saturday. Eastern plays Tennessee State Wednesday in the first round of the OVC Tournament in Evansville, Ind.

Sean Hastings, Sports Editor

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As coach Jay Spoonhour put it, “the hay is in the barn,” and you are who you are after 29 regular season games.

And the Panthers are a team that found a way to slip into the OVC Tournament as the No. 7 seed despite playing the whole season without a natural point guard. But senior Montell Goodwin has filled that role nicely with freshman Mack Smith playing along side him.

So come Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. when the Panthers play No. 6 Tennessee State in the first round of the OVC Tournament, each will know what the other brings.

The Tigers won both meetings with the Panthers this season by a combined seven points.

“They’re a good defensive team,” Spoonhour said. “(Wednesday)is going to be the exact kind of game (as the first two).”

Eastern’s 50-47 loss back on Jan. 27 was the lowest scoring game the Panthers had all season. It was also the third-least amount of points Eastern gave up all season.

OVC Defensive Player of the Year and All-OVC Second Team member, Christian Mekowulu makes that happen. Mekowulu dominated the Panthers last time, scoring 27 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, 8 defensively, in the win.

Spoonhour said Eastern needs to do a better job of not fouling Mekowulu. He shot 23 free throws in the two games this season.

“It’s going to be a low-scoring kind of game,” Spoonhour said. “What you’re saying is ‘what can we do to squeak out a couple buckets here and there. A couple buckets here and there is a huge deal in a game like this.”

Spoonhour feels that the Panthers are in a better spot compared to where they were a few games ago, since Eastern spent the better half of the season figuring out who it was and trying to learn to play without point guards.

But, the OVC Tournament is not a place where the Panthers are going to discover anything new.

“It’s probably as simple as something like if we can stop Mekowulu from getting two or three put-backs and staying out there and making it tough for (the shooters) to find stuff,” Spoonhour said.

Smith, who was named to the All-OVC Newcomer team Tuesday, knows his role and is ready for the challenge in the OVC Tournament.

“We have to go out there, play tough and guard,” Smith said. “We have to rebound the ball, stay locked in on defense.”

He also added that trying to avoid fouling Mekowulu will be key.

He knew coming into this season that he may get the chance to play a lot of minutes.

Smith and Goodwin have been the biggest scoring threats for Eastern this season, as they are the leading scorers averaging 12 and 14.8 points per game, respectively.

Goodwin was named to the All-OVC Second Team Tuesday.

For Eastern’s two leading scorers, it is their first OVC Tournament, just like it is for everyone besides junior Lucas Jones and injured senior Terrell Lewis.

“(We want to) go have fun and make a statement and let everybody know that we are here,” Smith said.

The Panthers play the final game of the day Wednesday, and if they beat the Tigers they will take on Austin Peay Thursday night. The winner the second round game plays Belmont, which earned a two-round BYE as the No. 2 seed.

Spoonhour said it will probably be a low scoring game.

“It’s going to come down to a couple little possessions,” he said. “That’s how these things go.”

Wednesday’s other game is between the No. 5 Tennessee Tech and the No. 8 Southern Illinois Edwardsville and starts at 6:30 p.m.

The Cougars pushed their way into the tournament on the final day of the season as Eastern Kentucky lost its game. They stayed at the No. 8 seed after their loss to the Panthers, which is also how Eastern got its seed.

Tennessee Tech finished the season 10-8 and Southern Illinois finished 5-13. It was tied with Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee-Martin, but had the tiebreakers over both schools.

The winner of that game moves on to the second round to play Jacksonville State and the winner of that moves on to play Murray State, which has a two-round bye as the No. 1 seed in the tournament.

The Golden Eagles hardly slipped by the Cougars in their first meeting Feb. 1 coming away with just a 68-67 win.

Tennessee Tech’s Curtis Phillips Jr. was named to the All-OVC Second Team this year. The Cougars also had a player get named to the All-OVC Second Team, with Jalen Henry being named Tuesday afternoon.

Southern Illinois Edwardsville gave up the most points per game on average throughout the regular season averaging 79.4. The Golden Eagles averaged 73.6 points per game and Southern Illinois Edwardsville averaged 70.3.

Tennessee Tech’s defense also lacked at times as it allowed 73 points per game on average.

Just like the Panthers and the Tigers, this game may come down to just a few possessions.

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