Column: Eastern is 2-5 in its last 7 games, what happened?


JJ Bullock

Cam Burrell (10) and Josiah Wallace (22) walk up court in the Panthers 84-78 loss to Morehead State on Feb. 2 in Lantz Arena. The Panthers have lost five of their last seven games.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports

The Eastern men’s basketball team has two ironies working against it right now.

Firstly, the offense is producing arguably the best it has all season in recent games, but the problem now lies within the defense’s ability to stop opposing offenses.

Secondly, the Panthers have gone 2-5 in their last seven conference games, after starting OVC play, ironically, 5-2.

So… how did things turn around so quickly?

There are smaller problems lying within the literal 180 in the team’s 2-5 record, but the main issue is Eastern’s performances down the stretch, on both sides of the ball.

Eastern is no stranger to having to make runs to get back within striking distance of opponents, after giving up big runs to opponents’ offenses.

At the cost of fans having heart attacks when their Panthers are down by 14 points with 9:48 left in the game (like they were against Austin Peay Jan. 19), Eastern is pretty comfortable and generally good at playing from behind and winning in the end (like it did 85-83 in that Austin Peay game).

But recently, Eastern has had trouble handling opponents’ runs late in the game and mounting a late comeback to get a win.

In three of the last five losses, Eastern was leading or tied with its opponents late into the second half, when Murray State, Austin Peay and Southeast Missouri made runs in the final minutes and buried Eastern.

In all three cases, Eastern’s defense could not keep opponents from making shots.

“You can’t go out and give up the amounts of points that we have,” said Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour. “We just got to get stops. We have to bear down, that’s what we’ve been working on the last couple days.”

The shot selection in those games and late turnovers, on the offense’s part, has been a consistent issue too.

While the offense was not able to produce in the earlier parts of the season, the Eastern defense now has a bigger fault in the overall problem that needs to be resolved with just four conference games left in the season.

In perhaps the biggest paradox of a game for Eastern, the road contest against Murray State Feb. 7, it was possibly Eastern’s best, yet worst, game of the season.

With a few ticks above nine minutes left in the game, Eastern had a commanding seven-point lead (71-64) over the OVC powerhouse.

With the momentum Eastern had, anyone would have been forgiven for thinking Eastern would get the upset road win.

Yet, what followed was a 22-4 run by Murray State to close out a win over the suddenly-shocked Panthers.

Darnell Cowart scored six points (four inside) in that run for Murray State, finishing off a 23-point game for the Racer big man. Throughout the night, his inside play gave Eastern trouble, and they still did not have an answer for him at that point, late in the game.

Murray State also made two three-pointers, which is a weakness for Eastern’s defense as it ranks last in the OVC in opponents’ three-point percentage (38.7 percent).

But offensively, Eastern squandered multiple possessions.

The Panthers committed four turnovers, at a time when any basket would have kept them theoretically in it, and they missed nine three-pointers. A few of those missed threes were rushed shots, or deep attempts, at the end of the shot clock.

And, one of the turnovers was a shot clock violation.

Eastern usually would not miss nine threes in a row, but the shot selection could have been better and quicker.

Just two days later, against Austin Peay, Eastern looked like it was about to steal another road win against an OVC powerhouse.

Once again, Austin Peay had a double-digit lead with 9:35 left in the game (12), but Eastern fought back and got to within two points (85-83, ironically) with 2:58 left in the game.

But, once again, Austin Peay finished the game on a 9-3 run to seal the deal.

Shareef Smith had a turnover with just under two minutes left when Eastern trailed 87-83, and Eastern missed five shots in the final stretch.

What hurt Eastern that time, though, was that the Governors made seven of eight free throws down the stretch.

And lastly, Saturday in a home game against Southeast Missouri, a game Eastern could not afford to (underlined and bolded) lose, the Panthers worked their way back to a 64-63 lead with 8:50 left in the game, only to watch the Redhawks outscore them 25-15 the rest of the way.

Oh, and that included a 14-5 run.

Results like those in these three games are a major downer on Eastern’s campaign, especially after its 5-2 conference start when it was in contention to take a first-place spot in the standings with just one loss from Murray State, Austin Peay and Jacksonville State (which they all have at least one loss since then).

Every team has ups and downs, and Eastern had two pre-assumed losses with back-to-back road games against Murray State and Austin Peay.

But the two losses to Southeast Missouri and the other loss to Morehead State were games Eastern should have won and needed to win.

Instead of being in contention for a top spot in the conference, or at least having comfortable ownership of fifth place, the Panthers now have Morehead State one game behind them and Southeast Missouri one game out of a playoff spot.

With this scenario, Eastern could end up playing one of them in the playoffs, which would be a harrowing first-round matchup.

Luckily for Eastern, the offense is starting to click more than ever, which will need to happen for the team’s future success.

Cam Burrell and JaQualis Matlock have stepped up their scoring and rebounding inside, which was the biggest need for the offense.

Over the last five games, Eastern scored an average 79.4 points, the best such stretch this season.

“The guys are doing a good job,” Spoonhour said. “They’re figuring each other out, we don’t have as many bad shots as we had earlier in the year, so that means fewer empty possessions.”

Yet, four of those games were losses, including the loss to Morehead State Feb. 2 when Eastern was outscored 12-9 in the final minute of play.

Thursday will be important, moreso necessary, for Eastern to fix this problem since the team faces OVC preseason-favorite Belmont, who is tied for first in the conference with Murray State.

The Panthers should win-out after Belmont (or possibly including Belmont), and doing so will be necessary to stay as high as possible in conference standings.

But all that starts with closing games out in the final minutes of each game.

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