Column: Close road losses good sign for Panthers’ future


Adam Tumino

Eastern redshirt-freshman Camino Tellez plays defense on a Oakland City ball handler in the Panthers 102-43 win on Nov.6 at Lantz Arena. The Panthers are 3-3 after losing back-to-back road games last week.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

As the Eastern women’s basketball team’s comeback bid against Valparaiso fell short on Sunday night, the team’s road losing streak became longer.

After dropping back-to-back road games to Valparaiso (62-60) and Bradley (67-64), the Panthers are now the owners of 17 straight road losses.

But head coach Matt Bollant said the two losses to Bradley and Valparaiso felt different than the previous 15 losses, and that is because in almost every sense, they were different. The Panthers gave themselves legitimate shots to win both games; if one possession at the end of either game goes slightly different, the Panthers are winners of their last two road games rather than losers. And that is what makes them so different; the Panthers actually looked competitive on the road.

Being different is something Bollant has been preaching since he took over as head coach last season, and more so than ever in the losses to Bradley and Valparaiso, his young team did look different. The Panthers competed hard and made two non-conference teams fight for wins on their home courts, something his team rarely did last season.

The Panthers went 0-14 on the road last season and lost those games by an average margin of 17.5 points per game, and that figure swells to 23.3 points per game when talking specifically about non-conference road games. Not only were the Panthers losing road games, they were getting blown out of the water.

Eastern lost the Bradley and Valparaiso games by a combined margin of just five points, and both games came down to the last possession. A big difference from last season? Absolutely. A step in the right direction? 100 percent.

Eastern is still a team that starts three sophomores and brings two freshmen as its first players off the bench, which makes the progress the team as shown already this season on the road all the more encouraging.

The group that played last season, which included the now three starting sophomores who started as freshmen, often looked over matched, lost and simply non-competitive on the road in the 14 road losses the team suffered last year. That is what Bollant said he wanted to change ahead of the team’s game against Bradley. While he did want a win, he also wanted to see his team play with more confidence on the road, something they did in back-to-back games.

The three sophomores in particular have played much better on the road. Guards Karle Pace and Taylor Steele along with forward Grace McRae have made huge strides away from Lantz Arena.

All three players were in double figures scoring in both games. Pace scored a team-high 18 points against Valparaiso and added 10 points against Bradley. Steele had the ball in her hands late against Valparaiso and even took the potential game-tying shot with under one second to play. She finished that game with 11 points and had 13 against Bradley. McRae narrowly missed a double-double in both games; she had 11 points and eight rebounds against Bradley and 10 points and nine rebounds against Valparaiso.

There has been no hiding how important those three will be to any success the Panthers will have this season, specifically any success on the road. So, to see the trio handling business on the road is telling that Eastern’s road losing streak could be seeing its end soon.

It is also important to remember that both Bradley and Valparaiso beat Eastern easily last season. Bradley won 67-52, and Valparaiso downed Eastern 76-67. Those games were played at home for Eastern, but it still says something that the Panthers were able to bring this season’s games against those two teams down to a final possession.

While Eastern’s losses count the same whether they are by two points or 22 points, it should still be highly encouraging to see how Eastern has played on the road this season, and the expectation should be there that the losing streak will end sooner rather than later.

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