Women’s basketball’s home games will test how good the Panthers are


The Daily Eastern News

File Photo | The Daily Eastern News Karle Pace defends a ball handler on the wing of the three-point arc. Eastern defeated Omaha 65-52 Dec. 7 in Lantz Arena.

JJ Bullock, Editor-in-Chief

There is little question as to what the Eastern women’s basketball team’s upcoming games against Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech will be: A measuring stick to tell this program exactly who it is in the OVC.

The Panthers, who have spent the last five seasons as a bottom-dweller in the OVC, are off to a 3-1 start in conference play this season and are looking to show this week that the 3-1 start is not just a flash in the pan, but an indication that the Panthers are once again a conference tournament-caliber team.

What the Panthers face in front of them this week is essentially a pair of prove-it games in Lantz Arena, with a matchup against Jacksonville State (6-9, 2-2 OVC) Thursday, serving as the first benchmark Eastern can use to show themselves and the rest of the conference where they stand in 2020.

“This is a game that is a good measuring stick,” Eastern head coach Matt Bollant said. “Are you as good as you think you are defensively? And you have got to show it now.”

Defense will likely be the focal point of Eastern and Jacksonville State’s meeting: Eastern is currently the top defensive team in the OVC, allowing just 58.5 points per game, but that title is one that Jacksonville State has held for years and likely will not give up easily on Thursday night.

When it comes to who is the best defense in the OVC, Thursday night will certainly be a matchup of the old guard versus the new. Jacksonville State is a team that has branded itself under head coach Rick Pietri as a defense-first program.

“You’re going to have to earn your baskets for sure and I think both teams defend well,” Bollant said. “I think what (Jacksonville State) does, it’s their identity, is their man defense. They held (Eastern Kentucky) to 33 points, so it is certainly who they are.”

Bollant addressed with his team in practice what to expect when the Gamecock’s stingey defense rolls into Lantz Arena.

“We talked in practice yesterday and just said, ‘Hey, it’s not going to be easy, you’re not going to make one pass, you’re not going to have one action and get an open shot, you’re going to have to work and get into second or third, and when you do get the opportunities you have to take advantage of it and make shots and make plays.’”

Now say, for the sake of conversation, that Eastern does come away with a win Thursday night against Jacksonville State and can put another notch in their measuring stick, what awaits them Saturday against Tennessee Tech (11-4, 4-0 OVC) is a first-place team that will really put Eastern to the test.

Tennessee Tech is not just a harder test than Jacksonville State, but might as well be on an entirely different subject. Where Jacksonville State makes its success by playing lockdown physical defense, Tennessee Tech grabs opponents and makes them beat them in high-scoring, fast-paced affairs.

The Golden Eagles are second in the OVC in scoring (67.5 ppg) and third in defense, allowing just 59.5 ppg.

There is a stark difference between Jacksonville State and Tennessee Tech, but Bollant said the team’s diverse non-conference schedule helped prepare them for situations like this.

Eastern will be without junior guard Taylor Steele, the team’s third-leading scorer for two to five weeks because of mono, which means someone will have to step in and fill her role.

Bollant said the toughest thing about replacing Steele is missing the consistency she brings to the court. But he has been pleased with what he has seen from her replacements, like freshman Morgan Litwiller, already.

“You try to have the next player up mentality, but that doesn’t always mean the next player steps up and does it, at least that’s what you say as a coach, but that is what you want,” Bollant said. “So, it was good to see Morgan (Litwiller) step up and play so well and Jordyn (Hughes) stepped up and played well as well.”

Eastern and Jacksonville State tip-off at 5:15 p.m. in Lantz Arena Thursday.

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