3 takeaways from Eastern conference openers


File Photo

Shareef Smith puts up a layup attempt as a Fontbonne University defender defends him during Eastern’s 90-37 victory over the Griffins on Dec. 4 in Lantz Arena.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

Eastern’s men’s basketball team got an important, and very dramatic, start to its conference season by winning its first two OVC games in overtime.

Both games were back and forth throughout, with Eastern making important plays in the clutch moments to tie and win the games.

With 16 conference games still ahead for the Panthers, these are the three biggest takeaways from the first conference games that can be expected to be essential for the team going forward.

Coming up clutch

After the two games, head coach Jay Spoonhour said his team has been playing with grit all season, especially in the last few games. 

And it has shown.

The Panthers have proven that they are comfortable playing in tight spots, as they are a perfect 4-0 this season in overtime games. But just that record alone does not show the whole story.

What is promising for the team going forward is how they have multiple players who have shown they are capable to make the big plays in the big moments.

In a home match against Western Illinois on Nov. 17, freshman Ben Harvey got an offensive rebound with his team down 66-65 with 37 seconds left in the overtime period and made the put back to give Eastern the lead, which they did not surrender again in the 68-66 victory.

Sophomore Josiah Wallace had the best scoring game of the season for Eastern on Nov. 24 against Arkansas State and hit multiple clutch shots to help Eastern win.

With about a minute and a half left in the second half, Wallace hit a free throw to complete a three-point play to give Eastern a lead, and when the Panthers were trailing by two with two seconds left, he made a shot in the lane to send the game to overtime.

En route to his total 31 points for the game, he had 10 points in overtime to help Eastern win 90-86.

Fast forward to these conference openers, Shareef Smith made a layup to send the game into overtime for Eastern, and he and Harvey made key free throws in overtime to put the game out of Tennessee-Martin’s reach Thursday.

Point is, the team has been put in tough spots and has produced wins, with the performances coming from a variety of Panthers.

This team can score

Five players for Eastern are averaging or are almost averaging 10 points per game. Wallace leads the team with 15 points per game, Mack Smith is second with 11.6 per game and Harvey averages 10 off the bench. Shareef Smith and Rade Kukobat both average just upward of nine points a game.

Last season, the Panthers averaged 66.6 points per game, and this year so far, Eastern is averaging 73.7. Even in every non-overtime win this season, the Panthers are averaging better than 70 points per game. 

When everything is hitting for this team, it is lethal for opponents. At times, though, the Panthers take quick shots on offense that miss, and the opponents have turned them into transition points or into more time of possession.

The Panthers have also hit cold streaks a fair amount of times in multiple games that have made them have to fight to get back into striking distance. 

One reason Eastern had to make clutch plays to get to overtime against Tennessee-Martin is a five-minute dry spell the team hit during the last ten minutes of the second half of Thursday’s contest.

More consistency going forward would be beneficial for the team, and when it finds that consistency, the Panthers will continue to put up big numbers.

Rebounding equals winning

This adage does not mean that good rebounding always leads to a victory, or that even getting more rebounds than the opponent does. 

But for the Panthers, so far, it has.

In eight of the Panthers’ nine wins, Eastern has outrebounded its opponents. The only exception was Eastern’s 73-66 victory against Bradley on Dec. 15, when Bradley outrebounded Eastern 41-29.

But that stat also implies what you may be thinking: Eastern’s six losses all showed its opponent outrebounding the Panthers. 

In general this season, Eastern is being outrebounded by its opponents; opponents are averaging 38.3 rebounds per game compared to Eastern’s 35.4.

Eastern finds itself at the bottom of the conference for rebounding.

The Panthers are 10th in the conference for average rebounding per game, and they are ninth in the conference for the average rebounding they give up to opponents.

Rebounding will have to improve going forward, and with freshman Cam Burrell coming back from injury, he will help give a boost in the rebounding department. 

Panthers like Rade Kukobat, who is tied for 17th in the conference with 5.8 rebounds per game, and JaQualis Matlock have been two of the better rebounders thus far, and all three and more will have to step up in the remainder of conference play.

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