Tournament Knockout: Eastern falls to Tennessee-Martin 78-71 in 1st round


JJ Bullock

Eastern guard Mack Smith takes a shot in Eastern’s 78-71 loss to Tennessee-Martin Wednesday night in Evansville.

Dillan Schorfheide, Assistant Sports Editor

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The Eastern men’s basketball team’s offense is in its most lethal form when its three-point shots are falling and Josiah Wallace and Mack Smith are scoring.

Wednesday, both of those things happened and the Eastern offense thrived, but only in the first half.

The second half was not as good for the panthers and they ended up being eliminated from the first round of the OVC tournament with a 78-71 loss to Tennessee-Martin.

Eastern finished the game shooting 27-of-60, not a bad mark, but 7-of-26 from three-point range.

“Pretty well-played game, I thought,” said Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour. “They made plays at the end which you have to do to win a game.”

In the first half alone, Wallace and Mack Smith combined for 21 of the team’s 38 points, Wallace with 13 and Mack Smith with eight.

As a team, Eastern shot 6-of-17 from three-point range in the half and 15-of-30 overall.

Mack Smith started the scoring for Eastern, making a wing three-pointer off a pass from Shareef Smith 40 seconds into the game.

Mack Smith’s three-point shot extended his streak of consecutive games with at least one three-pointer made to 49.

Complimenting Mack Smith’s three-point shooting in the first half (Smith made two) was Wallace’s three made three-pointers, all of them coming off his signature pull-up shot.

Eastern seemed to have full control of the game in the middle part of the first half, taking an eight-point lead with 8:27 left until halftime.

Eastern also held a lead over Tennessee-Martin for nearly the entire half, after Mack Smith’s first three-pointer 40 seconds in.

The Panthers’ offense did everything that made it effective throughout the season: Constantly moving off the ball and making shots.

The Panthers also scored 14 points in the paint in the first half, four fewer than the Skyhawks’ total, but a decent amount for an aspect of the game Eastern has struggled with at times.

Yet, despite Eastern’s offensive prowess, Tennessee-Martin held on and fought back late in the half.

To close out the final 8:27 of the first half (the point where Eastern held an eight-point, 27-19 lead), the Skyhawks outscored the Panthers 17-11.

In that span, Tennessee-Martin went on an 8-2 run in the final three minutes of the half, getting two second-chance baskets, a free throw and a three-point shot.

The type of offense Eastern had going in the first half is important to the team, as when Wallace and Mack Smith both score early and often, the team usually finds success.

But Tennessee-Martin carried its momentum into the second half.

Each time Eastern made a basket to go up by four points, the Skyhawks would answer in their very next possession with a basket to stay within a couple points.

With 14:45 left in the game, Tennessee-Martin finally tied Eastern at 48 all.

The Panthers had a four-point lead, but Derek Hawthorne Jr. made a fast-break layup off a steal and a put back off an offensive rebound in two straight possessions to tie the game for the Skyhawks.

Offensive rebounds and second-chance points were key parts of Tennessee-Martin’s win.

Although Eastern had more offensive rebounds than Tennessee-Martin (19-15), the Skyhawks had 21 second-chance points compared to the Panthers’ 17.

“While we’re trying to find our way (to playing better defense), the key for us is offensive rebounds,” said Tennessee-Martin head coach Anthony Stewart. “Fifteen (offensive rebounds) tonight. I thought we could hang around and be in the game until our defense really stepped up towards the end.”

Rade Kukobat and JaQualis Matlock battled inside to give Eastern the advantage in offensive rebounds, as they had nine and seven rebounds each.

Tennessee-Martin finally broke its torment of trailing Eastern with 9:33 left in the game, when Craig Randall II made a three-pointer to give the Skyhawks a 56-54 lead.

Around that time, from 10:22 left in the game to 7:42 left, Eastern was held scoreless, which helped the Skyhawks take their lead.

As was usual during the season, Eastern started to rely too much on three-point shots to stay ahead and come back.

After shooting 6-of-17 from beyond the arc in the first half, Eastern went 15 minutes into the second half shooting 1-of-6 from three-point range.

After the Skyhawks took their lead, they held it just above Eastern in a range from two-to-five points and closed out with a victory.

“It feels like another loss,” Spoonhour said. “The thing about it is, it’s been a strange year for us, because we had a whole bunch of games early on in the year where we were behind during the first half a lot, there were times we were down 14, 12, 15, and we had done just a great job of continuing to play.”

Eastern’s season ends with the Panthers ending on a 14-18 overall record (including the loss) and a 7-11 conference record (not including the tournament loss).

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