Eastern women’s basketball team prepared for ‘big week’ of games


File Photo

Eastern sophomore forward Grace McRae backs down an Illinois-Wesleyan defender in the Panthers exhibition win on Nov. 1. McRae is questionable to play in the Panthers’ home game against Murray State on Thursday.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

The Eastern women’s basketball team knows the importance of its upcoming week. With games against Murray State and Austin Peay scheduled for Thursday and Saturday respectively, and the Panthers sitting at 1-3 in conference play, there is no shying away from the weight this week’s games carry. 

Murray State (2-2 OVC) and Austin Peay (2-2 OVC) are both in the thick of the race for conference tournament berths while Eastern is on the outside looking in. The Panthers hold homecourt advantage in both games and see this week as a big opportunity to move back into the tournament picture. 

“This is a big week for us especially against two teams that we will be fighting with to get in the conference tournament,” head coach Matt Bollant said. “I think we have played four of the top teams, and obviously you don’t know how things are going to pan out, but I think the four teams that we have played are probably going to be in the conference tournament, and now we’re going to play two teams that are maybe in the mix somewhere in there, so this is a big week for us, and I feel like in the next 10 games we’ve got a good schedule and this is going to be a really important stretch for us.”

The four teams Bollant is referring to are Tennessee-Martin, Southern Illinois Edwardsville, Jacksonville State, and Tennessee Tech. Eastern’s lone win came against Tennessee-Martin, which also happens to be the only common opponent the Panthers share with Murray State and Austin Peay thus far. Both the Racers and the Governors lost to Tennessee-Martin.

A lot will be learned about where the Panthers stand in the conference after this week, but more in the immediate future, Bollant will be watching to see how his team recovers on Thursday against Murray State following his team’s worst defensive performance of the season against Tennessee Tech on Jan. 12. 

“Are we going to come back and fight defensively? Are we going to make some of the corrections that we didn’t do in the last two games on the road,” Bollant said, asking about his team on Thursday. “Can we play with that confidence and swagger at home that we had against (Tennessee)-Martin and Indiana State earlier in the year?”

Murray State’s biggest threat on the court, and quite possibly the reason this team which was picked to finish last in the conference is 2-2 through four games, is the post-play of junior transfer Evelyn Adebayo. 

Adebayo has bullied opponents down low and averages 18.7 points per game and 10.1 rebounds. Her game will become all the more important on Thursday as the Panthers will most likely be without starting forward Grace McRae, who Bollant said is “questionable at best” to play. 

Freshman forward Abby Wahl will be stepping into a starting role in place of McRae, and she will draw a big-time task in her second career start in playing against Adebayo in the post. 

“Just consistency,” Bollant said he was hoping to see from Wahl. “One of the things I love about Abby is she plays within herself and we’re challenging the other players to do that. Just do the things that you’re good at, things that you’re not, avoid. And she doesn’t try to overdo it, she takes good shots and she competes, and she has gotten better. She is probably our most improved player from the time she got here to now.”

Bollant realized one thing to be especially true during the Panthers’ last road trip: An energetic home crowd can change the outcome of a game. Against both Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech, Bollant cited loud home crowds to part of the reason Eastern lost.

Bollant is hoping to see Eastern acquire the same kind of advantage on this homestand, particularly Thursday when Eastern hosts all of Mattoon and Charleston’s middle school students for the game. 

Eastern and Murray State tip-off at 12 p.m. on Thursday and Austin Peay at 1 p.m. on Saturday. 

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