Lennox’s clutch baskets deliver Eastern 52-49 win


Dillan Schorfheide

Eastern forward Jalisha Smith takes a shot in the Panthers’ 52-49 win over Jacksonville State Thursday in Lantz Arena. Smith had six points and six rebounds in the win.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

Jacksonville State took a 46-45 lead over the Eastern women’s basketball team with 2:54 to play in the fourth quarter of a tight, back and forth game Thursday in Lantz Arena. But the lead was only temporary.

In moments like this, previously this season, the Panthers may have let the wind out of their sails, but senior guard Grace Lennox, in front of some 3,000 screaming kids, had different ideas of how she wanted her second-to-last game in Lantz Arena to end.

Lennox, with 2:33 to play, drove to the basket on a play designed for her to score and converted a tricky layup while getting fouled in the process. Lennox made the free-throw and gave her team a 48-46 lead, the last lead the Panthers would need in the game.

But a two-point lead was not comfortable enough for Lennox either. After both teams exchanged missed baskets on subsequent possessions, Lennox, with the score still at 48-46 and 1:05 to play, hit a wide-open three-point attempt, driving a dagger into Jacksonville State and ultimately the game itself.

“Yeah,” Lennox said when asked if she was looking to score. “We ran the play for me where I got the and-one, so I kind of knew that was my shot and then I was wide-open for the three. So, I needed to step up and make it.”

Step up and make it Lennox did in a moment that gave her team a much sought-after change of pace from what their late quarters have looked like this season.

The win for Eastern improved its conference record to 5-12 and knocked Jacksonville State, which already has a conference tournament ticket punched, down to 8-9 in conference play.

Eastern guard Karle Pace had a game-high 13 points for Eastern and Grace McRae added 10 in the win for Eastern. Forward Rayven Pearson had 13 points and nine rebounds for Jacksonville State.

Eastern came into Thursday’s game already knocked out of conference tournament contention, which meant motivation to win the game had to be rallied from a different cause. The cause the Panthers chose was winning games for the team’s four seniors who now have just one game left in a Panther uniform.

And with the pressure of making the conference tournament gone, the Panthers focused on just having fun again while playing basketball.

“For our seniors especially it’s the last time all of us our going to step on the floor, so we love the game, we have ever since we were kids,” Lennox said. “So we just wanted to go out there and have fun for the last few games that we have.”

Senior forward Jalisha Smith got the start in place of an injured Abby Wahl on Thursday and put up six points and six rebounds for Eastern. She also was in the mindset of just playing to have fun.

“Before the game we were saying let’s just go out and have fun, we’re not making the tournament, but we can give it all we’ve got, we can end on a good note,” Smith said.

All of what Lennox, Smith and co. did on Thursday was in the presence of roughly 3,000 area middle and elementary school students in attendance on a field trip. The students were loud, to say the least, and delivered an atmosphere that Lennox said was the best she has seen in Lantz Arena.

“It was definitely the best atmosphere we have had in here in five years,” Lennox said. “So, credit to Coach (Cleve) Wright for organizing that.”

“It was great to hear all the kids cheering,” Smith said. “They have so much energy; it was a great atmosphere.”

Eastern closes its season and Lennox, Smith, Halle Stull and Carmen Tellez their careers at Eastern, Saturday against Tennessee Tech at 1 p.m. in Lantz Arena.

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