Column: Women’s basketball team no longer rebuilding program, they’re here for real


File Photo

Members of the Eastern women’s basketball team celebrate during the team’s 102-43 win over Oakland City on Nov. 3. The Panthers are 7-6 this season, they were 3-26 last year.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

Not very many coaches in the Ohio Valley Conference had the Eastern women’s basketball team pegged as a conference tournament team prior to the season, slotting them in 11th place of 12 teams in the preseason poll, leaving them on the outside looking in at the conference tournament. 

Except, of course, for Eastern’s head coach Matt Bollant and Tennessee-Martin head coach Kevin McMillan (who was very high on the Panthers), most coaches in the OVC agreed that the young Eastern team would be better this season but would still probably fall short of a tournament berth. 

Thirteen games into the season, however, it is looking like Bollant and McMillan may have been on to something. Eastern is 7-6 overall (1-1 in conference), and the conference is as open as ever with perennial powerhouse Belmont getting knocked off by Tennessee Tech earlier this season. 

The conference’s other projected top teams, Tennessee-Martin, Jacksonville State and Morehead State have all lost conference games already too this season, which goes to show early that anyone can beat anyone in the conference. Which begs the question when it comes to who will make the conference tournament: Why not Eastern?

The Panthers’ seven wins this season is already four more than they had all of last season and Eastern picked up its first conference win in its first conference game of the season against Tennessee-Martin. Last season the Panthers did not get a conference win until their fifth OVC game of the year, and it took 12 more after that to get another one.

This Eastern team is not only just clearly improved from last year’s squad, but it may even be a contender to be a top team in the conference when all is said and done. 

Eastern has the conference’s second ranked defense, holding opponents to just 59.8 points per game. The Panthers are not just a one-trick pony, however; they also are second in the conference in three-point field goal percentage (.333), third in overall field goal percentage (.427) and have the conference’s third best turnover margin at 4.38.

Sophomore guard Karle Pace has quietly turned herself into one of the league’s best scorers. Whe is 7th in the OVC averaging 14.8 points per game. The team around her is good too; guard Taylor Steele is one of the better three-point shooters in the conference, and she has made 23 from beyond the arc this season. Redshirt-senior guard Grace Lennox is giving Eastern the veteran presence they missed last year, and Grace McRae and Jennifer Nehls have morphed into a formidable front court duo.

This team’s bench is deeper than it has been in a while, with freshman Kira Arthofer, senior Carmen Tellez and freshman Abby Wahl all offering production from that standpoint. 

Eastern is much better than last season as it appears that Coach Bollant’s rebuilding plan for the program has taken a large leap in his second season as coach. And this season, who can really say right now that the conference is not fair game for any of the teams.

Belmont, a team that rattled off 47 conference wins in a row, was beaten by Tennessee Tech, a team that was 4-14 in conference play last season. 

Tennessee-Martin looks vulnerable as ever this season, and even Jacksonville State has one loss on its resume already. Tennessee State (0-14) appears much weaker predicted, and Eastern Kentucky (2-11) also figures to be a non-factor in the conference.

That leaves Eastern and nine other teams to compete for eight conference tournament spots. At this point, to say Eastern would be one of the other teams to miss the conference tournament looks like a foolish prediction.

Eastern’s defense has been stifling this season, and the offense has been more than efficient enough to win games. The conference is an open cluster right now, and Eastern is right in the middle of the cluster with more than enough weapons to jostle its way into the conference tournament. 

It is time to stop viewing Eastern as a young program on a rebuilding path anymore. Yes, the Panthers are young, but the iron is hot and waiting to be struck, and Eastern is more than capable in 2019 of delivering that blow. 

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