Eastern eliminated from OVC tournament contention


File Photo

Karle Pace makes a pass attempt to Grace Lennox during Eastern’s 80-60 victory over Eastern Kentucky Jan. 31 in Lantz Arena.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

The Eastern women’s basketball team was eliminated from Ohio Valley Conference tournament contention following a 70-66 loss to Tennessee State Saturday night in Nashville and a Jacksonville State win over Eastern Kentucky on Saturday.

Eastern head coach Matt Bollant knew before his team played on Saturday that they had been eliminated from contention after he saw the result of the Jacksonville State-Eastern Kentucky game. Bollant however kept that information to himself prior to the game.

“We had talked quite a bit about the conference tournament and we didn’t play well in a couple of games when that was our focus, so I tried to erase that and just focus on playing well and doing the right things and keep growing,” Bollant said. 

The Panthers got 23 points from guard Taylor Steele, her career-high, and 21 points from Karle Pace, but the efforts of the sophomores were not enough to overcome two late free throws by Tennessee State’s Tia Wooten in the final seconds of the game.

Eastern entered the fourth quarter tied with the Tigers at 51-51 and took a 52-51 lead with 9:13 to play in the game. Tennessee State took the lead again with 5:55 to play after Cebria Outlow made two free throws, pushing the score to 58-56.

That lead would be the last one Tennessee State would need, as it would stick until the end of the game.

A pair of free throws by Pace with 13 seconds to play drew Eastern back within two points, trailing 68-66. But Wooten came back down the court with eight seconds to play and made both crucial free throws to give her team a 70-66 lead.

Eastern freshman Kira Arthofer then missed a three-pointer with five seconds to play, all but sealing Eastern’s fate.

“We were up 55-51 and liked what we had done to get to that point,” Bollant said of the final quarter. “Give credit to (Tia Wooten), she really stepped up and made plays. We got fairly good shots, but I feel like (Wooten) stepped up and we had some things go against us, a couple of missed rebounds and didn’t close a couple of gaps that cost us.”

The loss dropped Eastern to 4-12 in conference play, erasing completely what little chance the team had left of making the conference tournament.

The Panthers have two games remaining and trail Southern Illinois Edwardsville and Southeast Missouri, both 7-9, for the final conference tournament spot.

Even if Eastern were to have beaten Tennessee State however, the Panthers still would have needed both Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois Edwardsville to lose out the season, and Eastern would have had to win out and had tiebreakers fall in its favor to make the conference tournament.

So, while the conference tournament was already a long shot headed into Saturday, the loss made it a no-shot.

The Panthers’ last two games come against Jacksonville State on Thursday and Tennessee Tech next Saturday: Both games will be played in Lantz Arena.

The Panthers’ role in those games as far as the rest of the conference will be concerned will be to play spoiler to Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech, both of which are jockeying for seeding in the conference tournament.

Jacksonville State is 8-8 in conference play, tied with Murray State in sixth place. The Gamecocks will be looking to win and break the tie with the Racers and hopefully move up a spot and catch up with 9-7 Austin Peay.

A loss for Jacksonville State would bump them down into the same category as Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois Edwardsville.

Tennessee Tech will be fighting to break a three-way tie with Morehead State and Tennessee-Martin, as all three teams are 11-5.

Belmont has already clinched the top seed in the conference, so Tennessee Tech will be playing Eastern potentially for 2nd place.

The focus for Eastern in both of those games however will just be continuing to develop as a basketball team and to send of the seniors on a good foot Bollant said.

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