Jacksonville State coming to Lantz for pivotal game


JJ Bullock

Eastern guard Mack Smith fires a pass in the Panthers’ loss to Morehead State Feb. 2 in Lantz Arena. The Panthers’ host 13-3 Jacksonville State Thursday night in Lantz Arena.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

As Eastern men’s basketball head coach Jay Spoonhour put it, the Panthers backed into a playoff spot.

Nonetheless, the team secured a position in the OVC tournament over the weekend despite losing to Belmont and Tennessee State.

The Panthers are tied for fifth place with Morehead State, currently in the conference standings, which holds a tiebreaker over Eastern because of the 84-78 Eagles’ victory in Lantz Arena Feb. 2.

For either team to secure the 5th place position, they will both have to beat some of the OVC’s best in this last weekend of the regular season.

Morehead State hosts Murray State Thursday and Eastern Kentucky Saturday. Eastern Kentucky is no pushover itself, boasting the second-best scorer in the conference in Nick Mayo, and the Colonels will be fighting for the last two spots in the tournament.

Eastern’s final opponent of the season, Tennessee Tech, is the last-place team in the conference, a more favorable matchup to end the season for Eastern’s senior night.

The Panthers are not worried about next week though.

“There is no concern about the tournament,” Spoonhour said. “Our focus needs to be on the task at hand.”

But the team that can put Eastern’s 5th place spot in danger comes to Lantz Arena Thursday: Jacksonville State.

The Gamecocks emerged as a contender for the OVC crown early in the conference season, taking down Belmont twice and defeating Murray State later.

But they also have three losses and are tied with Austin Peay for the No. 3 seed.

Most importantly, the Gamecocks already defeated Eastern 69-62 this season.

Jan. 10, Eastern went to Alabama and took on the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks ended up as the winners, but Eastern hung with them for most of the game.

“We played tough in our first game with Jacksonville (State),” Spoonhour said. “They force you to do that if you’re going to have any chance. They’re a tough, physical team.”

In Eastern’s last matchup with Jacksonville State, Josiah Wallace and Ben Harvey led the way with 14 points each. Mack Smith led the Panthers with seven rebounds, and Eastern only had two fewer total rebounds than Jacksonville State (39-37).

The Gamecocks are lethal on both sides of the ball.

They boast the second-best defense in the conference based on points allowed per game (67.9), and they have the best rebounding margin in the OVC (+6.3). Jacksonville State grabs 40 rebounds per game.

Jacksonville State’s offense also averages 76.8 points per game, led by Jason Burnell. Burnell averages 16.2 points per game and 9.4 rebounds.

Overall, including Burnell, the Gamecocks have three players who average double-digit scoring, with three more who score at least eight points per game.

Eastern’s tough, crucial game against the Gamecocks is set to start at 8 p.m. Thursday.

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