Panthers focused on basketball only ahead of Belmont


Dillan Schorfheide

Taylor Steele rises for a shot attempt in the lane during Eastern’s 80-60 win over Eastern Kentucky in Lantz Arena Jan. 31.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

The Eastern women’s basketball team is taking a breath.

After going winless last week in two games where the importance of winning those games to make it to the conference tournament was an emphasis, the Panthers’ are dialing back on the conference tournament talks ahead of this week’s games and just focusing on playing basketball.

Eastern, now 4-10 in conference play, entered last week with games against Austin Peay (8-6) and Southeast Missouri (7-7) in two matchups where ignoring the implications of the conference tournament would have been nearly impossible to ignore.

Eastern folded in both of those games, losing particularly badly to the Redhawks at home, and as a result, conversations this week about the conference tournament have been kept muted. The Panthers now are just approaching these games as what they are: basketball games.

“We have been trying to take a little pressure off (the players),” Eastern head coach Matt Bollant said. “I don’t think we had a great week last week thinking about, probably overthinking about, the conference tournament, I just said, ‘Let’s forget about the conference tournament, let’s just go play basketball, let’s try to get better as a team and see if we can be the very best we can be and we will live with the results.’”

Bollant said after the loss to Southeast Missouri last Saturday that his team was about as down morally as he had ever seen them. This week with the more basketball, less conference tournament, mentality, he said he has seen an uptick in his team’s mood.

“Yesterday for sure we saw a little bit more of an upbeat practice and a little bit more joy in practice, and I thought we saw a little bit more of that today as well,” Bollant said.

It is a good thing the Panthers are feeling good headed into Thursday because the Belmont team that will be waiting for them is probably feeling just as good, if not better.

The Bruins (13-1) have won 12 games in a row and are coming off a week where they beat Tennessee Tech 99-67 and Tennessee State 89-65. So take a breath Panthers, and then gulp if you must.

Belmont is third in the conference in scoring (75.3 ppg) and second in defense (58.9 ppg). On both sides of the ball the Bruins bully opponents into submission. It is the Belmont offense in particular of late that Eastern really has its eye on.

“They put up 99 points at Tech and you look at their scores and they have been in the 80s a bunch, they’re just really good offensively,” Bollant said.

Bollant and the Panthers do have a game plan however, or at the very least know what would have to occur if an upset of the Bruins is to become a reality.

“I think you have to score the basketball against them because they are so good offensively, they’re going to put up points,” Bollant said. “You have to be proficient with what you do and shoot a good percentage and we’re going to try and control the tempo a little bit and have a few less possessions then we normally would play at and see if we can be really good in our scoring efficiency.”

The OVC will get to see a Darby Maggard versus Grace Lennox point guard battle for quite possibly the last time on Thursday. For the last four season the two have widely been considered to be among the best guards in the conference, up until Lennox suffered a knee-injury last season. Theatrics aside however, and Maggard still poses a huge scoring threat (16.6 ppg), one the Panthers and Lennox will have to contain on Thursday.

“The one thing is to just keep her from getting in a rhythm,” Bollant said. “One thing we’re going to try and make her guard on the defensive end, she likes to rest down there a little bit and just make her have to play defense and just make every shot that she takes.”

Freshman guard Kira Arthofer is expected to play Thursday. She was out last week with a sprained ankle.

Eastern and Belmont tip-off at 5 p.m. Thursday nigth.

The Panthers then will then play Tennessee State (4-10) in Nashville on Saturday.

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2182 or [email protected]