Men’s basketball team wins first OVC games


File Photo

Rade Kukobat posts up against a Fontbonne University defender during Eastern’s 90-37 victory over the Griffins in Lantz Arena on Dec. 4.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

The Eastern men’s basketball team won its first two conference games by winning both contests in overtime.

The Panthers (9-6) defeated Tennessee-Martin (5-8) Thursday in the OVC opener for Eastern and defeated Southern Illinois Edwardsville (5-9) Saturday. Both games were home games for Eastern. 

The two conference wins were part of the three-game win streak Eastern is currently riding, after the Panthers defeated North Alabama 81-70 at home on Dec. 30.

The Panthers won both of their first two conference games in dramatic fashion, going into overtime and winning during the five-minute extra periods. Eastern is 4-0 in overtime this season.

Both games had different paths to their outcomes.

Against Tennessee-Martin, Eastern had to fight at the end of regulation to tie the game, but against Southern Illinois Edwardsville, the Cougars were the ones who found themselves fighting to tie the game at the end of the second half.

“We’ve shown a lot of grit all season, and especially in the last few games,” head coach Jay Spoonhour said. “To win close games you have to rebound, make foul shots and have good guard play. In our comeback wins we’ve done that.”

Eastern led Tennessee-Martin for most of the first half Thursday, but a dunk by the Skyhawks’ Quintin Dove with just over five minutes left in the first half gave the Skyhawks a lead that they would not surrender until Eastern freshman Ben Harvey made a free throw with 23 seconds left to give Eastern a 38-37 halftime lead.

Much like the first half, Eastern led for a good portion of the second half, until Tennessee-Martin’s Fatodd Lewis had his own seven-point run with nine minutes left in the second half to give his team a 64-58 lead.

And again, much like the first half, the Skyhawks held the lead for the rest of the half, until there were six seconds left in the half, when Shareef Smith made a layup to tie the game at 82 going into overtime.

The overtime period was pretty quiet for the first four and a half minutes, as the teams combined for five points in that time span. Dove made a layup for the Skyhawks, and Mack Smith made a three-pointer for the Panthers.

The rest of the scoring for both teams came with under 30 seconds left.

The Skyhawks kept scoring to keep things interesting, but Harvey and Shareef Smith both made two free throws each in the last 17 seconds to secure a 92-87 Eastern win.

In Saturday’s game, Southern Illinois Edwardsville held a tight lead over Eastern for the first 10 minutes into the second half, but throughout what was seemingly the rest of the game, Eastern and Southern Illinois Edwardsville had a back-and-forth battle.

But the Cougars found themselves trailing by a tight 64-63 score with a minute and a half left in the second half.

Cameron Williams would turn that around for the Cougars, though, and score three points over the next half-minute to give Southern Illinois Edwardsville a 66-64 lead.

Josiah Wallace, who has delivered in clutch situations for the Panthers before, made two free throws with 57 seconds left to tie the game.

Unlike Eastern’s previous overtime period, Saturday’s featured much more scoring for both sides.

The teams combined for 33 overtime points in a back-and-forth overtime battle.

Eastern led by as much as seven a few different times, and that is where the Panthers found themselves with 56 seconds left. 

Southern Illinois Edwardsville made one last push and found itself down 83-81 with seven seconds left, after Tyresse Williford made three free throws from being fouled on a three-point attempt.

Mack Smith made one more free throw for Eastern with five seconds left, and Williford had one last three-point attempt before the buzzer sounded to tie the game but missed it, and Eastern won 84-81.

Wallace led Eastern with 27 points against Tennessee-Martin, and Shareef and Mack Smith, and Rade Kukobat also had double-digit scoring.

Against Southern Illinois Edwardsville, Wallace led the Panthers in scoring again with 24 points. Shareef and Mack Smith also scored in double digits, 14 and 10 points respectively.

“Every conference game is intense and has a bit of a different feel,” Spoonhour said. “It’s a new experience for most of our guys, but they’re getting it. It’ll get even tougher this week.”

Eastern has two straight road conference games before returning home on Jan. 17. 

On Thursday, the Panthers visit Jacksonville State, who has started OVC play 2-0, including a road win against preseason-favorite Belmont. Saturday, Eastern visits Tennessee Tech, who is 1-1 in OVC play.

Dillan Schorfheide can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]