Column: Panthers need to score inside in OVC tournament


JJ Bullock

Eastern’s Josiah Wallace drives the lane in the Panthers’ 63-57 loss to Tennesse Tech on March 1. Eastern plays Tennessee-Martin in the first round of the OVC tournament Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

There has never been a better time for the Eastern men’s basketball team to step up.

Eastern faces Tennessee-Martin Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. in the first round of the OVC tournament, and while Eastern is the higher seed (six over seven), recent play is not indicative of an Eastern team ready for a tournament run.

Against Tennessee-Martin alone, Eastern has struggled to have convincing wins: The Panthers beat the Skyhawks 92-87 in overtime in the conference season-opener, and later they defeated the Skyhawks 66-64 on the road.

Looking beyond the Skyhawks, even, Eastern has no margin for error if it wants a championship appearance.

And the absolutely vital tool Eastern needs to utilize on the court every game is an inside presence on offense.

I have harped on this for nearly the whole season and will continue to until Eastern’s season is completely over. Next year, and quote me on this, I will probably say the same thing.

Call me old-fashioned if you want to, since most styles of basketball today revolve around quick guards and all-around shooting, but I mean it.

It does not matter who does it, but one of the Panthers or multiple of them need to be tough in the post this tournament.

In all fairness, the inside presence has beefed up considerably since the first half of the season, and Eastern has benefited from it.

But the team needs more.

For all intents and purposes, I am ignoring three-point shooting and Eastern’s non-paint scoring in general. Whether the outside shooting is good or bad in these games, inside scoring is a must.

There are two games that highlight this really well.

The first game is Eastern’s 86-75 loss on the road to Murray State.

With eight minutes to go in the game, the Panthers held a 71-64 lead over the best team in the OVC at the time; on the road, nonetheless.

Murray State then closed the game on a 22-4 run. In that run, Murray State scored eight points in the paint. Leading the way was Racer big man Darnell Cowart, who tied Ja Morant with a game-high 23 points.

Cowart gave Eastern fits the entirety of the game. He finished with a double-double, including 12 rebounds.

16 of Cowart’s points were scored in and around the paint, and some of his seven free throws came off fouls when he was posting up.

Eastern simply had no answer. On the offensive end, during Murray State’s closing run, Eastern missed nine straight three-pointers and only scored when Josiah Wallace made a layup and two free throws.

The Panthers did not and could not go inside, even though Cowart picked up his fourth foul with 4:32 left in the game, when Eastern only trailed by six.

Even when KJ Williams came in for Cowart at that point, Cowart replaced him with 2:37 left when Eastern still only trailed 79-71. Yet, Eastern did not attack the paint, instead missing four three-pointers from then-on-out.

The last bit of evidence I need is Eastern’s last regular-season game (also senior night) against Tennessee Tech Saturday.

Facing the worst OVC team on senior night sounds like a fitting way to end the regular season with a tournament appearance upcoming, right?

Tell that to the 63-57 result in Tennessee Tech’s favor.

Fifty-seven points, on your home court, on senior night, against the worst OVC team is embarrassing, especially considering the Panthers scored 59 against Texas and 53 against Iowa State.

That score is fine against Big 12 teams, not the Golden Eagles.

What happened was Eastern could not make jump shots and went inside too little too late.

To their credit, the Panthers did not take bad jump shots, they just did not fall.

But when they do not fall, trying more of them is a bad idea.

For the game, Eastern shot 4-of-22 from three-point range. At first, Eastern had a lot of trouble getting inside and scoring against Tennessee Tech’s 2-3 zone, but they started to break through it in the second half.

Eastern scored 12 points in the paint in the first half, and finished with 32 points in the paint for the game. There was improvement, but not enough to make up for the missed outside shots.

Ben Harvey even said after the game the team needs to attack the paint more for the tournament.

Not only does this allow for scoring inside and possible free throws, but establishing an inside presence can make the defense more compact, opening the perimeter for better three-point shots and opportunities.

JaQualis Matlock is Eastern’s best post-up guy, and Cam Burrell has improved in that sense and has more confidence with his jump shot around the lane.

They will both need to rebound well (offensively and defensively), and will need to score in the paint and post well.

A big part of getting points inside in such a way is to simply dump the ball inside more often.

Eastern lives around perimeter shooting, and teams will be ready for it. Tennessee Tech’s coaches were yelling when Mack Smith touched the ball around the arc at any point during the game.

Instead of keeping the ball by the arc, dump it inside right away, and other teams will be caught off guard. If the Panthers score inside well, that will also open up their perimeter shooting.

And doing so against the Skyhawks is the perfect chance to prepare for Jacksonville State, since that is who Eastern would play if they win Wednesday.

Tennessee-Martin does not have the size the Gamecocks do, so getting the inside offense ready Wednesday will only help for the next rounds the following days.

The Panthers have the guys to score inside, and Wednesday is the time to utilize them to get further in the tournament.

Too many times this season, players and Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour have said the team relied too much on outside shooting and did not attack inside enough.

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