Panthers, Skyhawks reflect on last season’s games


File Photo | The Daily Eastern News

Rade Kukobat attempts a jump-pass during a fast break during Eastern’s 90-37 victory over Fontbonne University last season in Lantz Arena. The Panthers were picked to finish 7th in the OVC this season.

Tom O'Connor, Men's Basketball Reporter

For all that Eastern managed to accomplish through two games, and everything Tennesse-Martin couldn’t, both teams put aside what came to define them in the regular season by the time of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in March.

The Panthers commanded a 92-87 overtime win in the conference opener, and they did as much despite eight steals and 10 turnovers, which rendered 15 Tennessee-Martin points, in the first half.

Eastern was right at .500 before they toppled Tennessee-Martin for the first win in a conference opener in four years. Even before the game began, though, the Panthers had every reason to be optimistic about their prospects for postseason success. That week, Eastern garnered all three weekly OVC weekly awards for the first time in program history, as Mack Smith’s 21 points and seven rebounds warranted player of the week honors. Shareef Smith netted the newcomer of the week award while Cam Burrell was recognized as the freshman of the week.

Neither team could carve out much separation when the teams met three weeks later in Tennessee. It took a three-pointer from Josiah Wallace with 12 seconds left, followed by a Cam Burrell block on the other end, to seize the win and reign over Tennessee-Martin in the season series. Although the Skyhawks posted a 50 percent field goal percentage in the first half, their shooting production dropped to a less efficient, but still respectable, 33 percent in the second half of the game. They also had their share of second chance opportunities.

“Very rarely will Spoon’s teams beat themselves, so you have to play your best basketball,” said TennesseeMartin head coach Anthony Stewart.

Then it all fell apart.

The Panthers went 0-5 to close out the season, just the second season in which the team had finished without a win over the final five games since Eastern became a Division I program in 1981.

“Every team I have ever had, and every year I have ever been here, we actually kind of usually used to start slow and then we got better as the thing went on,” Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour said. “That was the exact opposite last year. The effort and everything was still the same. The effort was still good, we just had a hard time guarding.”

After the Skyhawks lost by two points to the Panthers for the second of two regular season matchups, letting a double digit lead over the Panthers dissolve in the second half, Tennessee-Martin charted a playoff push with a 73-69 win over SIU at home.

No one expected Tennessee-Martin to be relevant in the OVC, and they had no reason to believe that they were mistaken, since the Skyhawks went 0-7 at the outset of the conference schedule. The Skyhawks were picked to finish 11th according to a sample of coaches and sports information directors, ahead of just Southern Illinois Edwardsville in the preseason poll standings.

They achieved playoff eligible status by winning merely one more conference game than the previous season, when the Skyhawks lost four of the their last five and failed to make it into the tournament.

“Sometimes people are scared to try something different or just start from scratch, and I just basically did that,” Stewart said.

“I saw some things that needed to be done and it changed our season. We were the first team start 1-9 and still make the conference tournament.”

Stewart resolved to move Quintin Dove from the four to the five, and he even went so far as to run the offense through him in the post, where he could simply whip the ball out to guards on the perimeter when defenders collapsed.

Senior Jailen Gill operated as one of the finest two-way threats in the conference, but his output lagged far behind the rate at which he put the ball in the net, putting up only six points per contest on 55 percent shooting. In the postseason, his shooting began to show some promise.

Gill set the pace with 17 points in the first round of the tournament to defeat Eastern by seven points, yet this scoring spree was an aberration and did not seem to correlate with performances in the regular season. Taking into account this surprise performance, the result might seem to indicate a fair dosage of luck, though Stewart attributed the marked difference in play to something else entirely.

“Guys were a little thirsty,” Stewart said. “They know we let two games slip games slip away and so we obviously knew we could play with Eastern because we were right there in both games.” 


Tom O’Connor can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]