Column: Breaking tough defenses a must for Eastern


Zack Berger

Rade Kukobat and Aboubacar Diallo try to block Ja Morant’s shot attempt during Eastern’s 83-61 loss to Murray State in Lantz Arena Jan. 17.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

Shooting well from the outside has been the men’s basketball team’s bread and butter this season.

Three of Eastern’s players are on OVC leaderboards for two different three-point shooting categories, Ben Harvey, Kashawn Charles and Mack Smith, and Smith has Eastern’s record by making a three-point shot in 38 straight games, also the longest current OVC streak.

So when the team is shooting well, the Panthers are winning games.

But when shots are not falling, the team falls hard.

A few times this season, opponents have held Eastern to low shooting percentages in the game and have taken wins away from Eastern.

Oddly enough, the way those teams have done this to the Panthers has been by keeping them outside the three-point arc.

Sounds weird, right?

Well opponents are going further, and by further I mean they are pushing Eastern further away from the three-point arc, much less the basket.

Eastern excels when defenses do not pressure too high, which allows the Panthers to move pretty freely around the arc and, if they cannot get a three-point shot, will pass to a cutter for a drive to the basket or a free-throw-line jump shot.

But when the defense pressures the ball handlers high in the half court offense, and pressures the passes around that area too, Eastern’s offense struggles to get going.

This was a problem Eastern faced with Austin Peay and, on Saturday, Southeast Missouri, but the difference between the outcomes of the games is night and day.

After Eastern’s 85-83 victory over Austin Peay Jan. 19, Josiah Wallace said Eastern’s game plan against the Governors was to get a lot of points on backdoor and regular cuts to the basket and get behind the defense as much as possible because they liked to pressure high and jump passes a lot.

Eastern finished the game with 30 points in the paint, handling the pressure decently for the most part and getting a lot of drives to the basket and cuts.

Head coach Jay Spoonhour, after the game, said he did not think they did all that well with getting close to the basket, that things could have been a little crisper, but those points in the paint were the difference, since Eastern had 17 turnovers to Austin Peay’s nine.

And the Panthers even shot 10-of-16 from three-point range.

The outcome of the Southeast Missouri game, though, was different.

Eastern lost 64-59 in a game that is tied for the second-fewest amount of points scored by the Panthers.

Early on, Wallace had 10 points, helping Eastern jump to a 19-5 lead. But right away, the Redhawks pressured higher on defense and Eastern started to score less often and Southeast Missouri started to chip away at Eastern’s lead.

The high pressure was a problem for the rest of the game, and a lot of Eastern possessions ended in a missed three-point attempt with the shot clock winding down.

Eastern shot 5-of-22 from three-point range, and although Eastern scored 24 points in the paint, it was not enough to make up for the missed threes.

I have been saying for a bit now that Eastern needs better presence inside. Cam Burrell has helped with that since he has come back from injury, and JaQualis Matlock has totaled 23 points and 13 rebounds over the past two games, being more aggressive inside.

So the inside play is starting to develop more, and Eastern is already good at making cuts for quick, open shots and driving to the basket.

But the issue remains for Eastern, how to break through a high-pressuring defense.

No matter how tough a defense is, there is always space to work with.

Ball screens are one option, but screening that high could be largely ineffective because most defenses hedge, or have a defender slow down the ball handler by st epping into the space around the screen, and even with the screen, passing the ball to the screener who slips off the screen still leaves them with the ball around the three-point line.

Then they are tasked with either shooting a quick three or driving or passing it off again, likely not getting any closer to the rim.

The Panthers already excel at driving and cutting to the basket and into space, so once they cross over half court, sending cutters toward the three-point line and into the space around the lane could allow for quick passes to get behind the first layer of defense.

Another option I favor more would be to get the ball over half court and have a wing or one of the post players cut hard to the free throw line, where they could then have a one-on-one with the defender and drive for the basket, drive and kick it out or pull up for a quick jump shot.

Speed is a great way to break tough defenses. So, doing this quickly, and just as importantly importantly efficiently and well, could also mean that when one guy catches the pass around the free-throw line, another quick, hard cut toward the basket could get quick, easy baskets.

And should the player who catches the ball at the free throw line drive to the basket, or the player doing a backdoor cut get fouled, they have a chance for free throws, which Eastern has struggled with getting recently.

Against Southeast Missouri, Eastern only attempted two free throws, and in the previous game against Tennessee-Martin, Eastern got 16 free throw attempts but only made eight of them.

No matter what option, Eastern needs to strengthen its attack against high-pressuring defenses because getting inside will help the Panthers get more chances to score. Plus, breaking the defense over and over will make it back off and could allow for the breathing room needed for threes.

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