Late loss by Eastern looked familiar


JJ Bullock

Eastern’s Kashawn Charles surveys the court in Eastern’s 78-71 loss against Tennessee-Martin Wednesday night in Evansville.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — On Feb. 28 the Eastern men’s basketball team led Jacksonville State 64-57 with three minutes to play in the second half of a game that would be ever important to the seeding of the conference tournament.

A few late mistakes in regulation and in the two subsequent overtime periods that followed had Eastern saddled with an 89-84 loss by the time the game was over.

On March 2, Eastern led Tennessee Tech 55-51 with 2:23 to play in regulation.

Eastern led again, this time the margin was tighter at 57-56 with 1:23 to play in the second half.

And in all too similar fashion to what happened just two days earlier, a couple of missed shots and misplayed passes occurred in the waning minutes of the game and Eastern once again found itself on the losing end of a crucial conference game, this time losing 63-57.

The familiarity returned Wednesday night in Evansville, Indiana for Eastern’s first-round game against Tennessee-Martin in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.

At the end of the first half Eastern held a narrow 38-36 lead over the Skyhawks.

With 4:48 remaining in the second half, Eastern’s once lead had turned into a 62-60 Skyhawk lead.

With 2:34 remaining, Eastern’s Ben Harvey cut the lead to 65-64, only for the Skyhawks to return down the court with another basket of their own.

A foul by Eastern’s Mack Smith with 6.9 seconds left, with Eastern trailing 74-71 led to Tennessee-Martin free throws that sealed the game for the Skyhawks.

It was the exact same kind of tit-for-tat game Eastern had found itself in just one-week prior. And it ended the same way, with Eastern losing, this time 78-71, as the Panthers had to drive back to Charleston followed by the same demons that had haunted them for much of the season.

On Wednesday night when Eastern needed a clutch basket, they instead got another sigh-inducing miss, like the missed three-pointer by Mack Smith with 15 seconds to play.

When the Panthers’ needed a disciplined possession, they instead turned in a frustrating and head-scratching mistake.

With six seconds left and Eastern still trailing by three points, a personal foul by Mack Smith, one that drew the ire of head coach Jay Spoonhour who barked at the referees following the call, gave Tennessee-Martin the chance to make the game-sealing free-throws.

It is a disappointing way for Eastern to end its season, but one that should not be visited by Eastern like a stranger.

On Feb. 28 Eastern needed a clutch shot, a solid defensive stop, they did not come. On March 2 Eastern needed anyone to become a playmaker late in the game, no one did.

On Wednesday, the narrative stayed the same and this time it cost Eastern its season.

Whether the blame should be pointed at coaching or at players is difficult to decipher and perhaps is not even that important. All that is clear and has been clear in Eastern’s last three games is that when the going got tough late in games; Eastern collectively did not answer the call.

As Eastern’s season now comes to an end, the Panthers will have eight months to ponder what could have been different had only a few seconds of time gone differently.

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