Eastern’s defense showed how good it is

Dillan Schorfheide, Sports Editor

Eastern’s defense proved itself in the Panthers’ 95-83 win Thursday night.

Sure, the Panthers could get three blowout games at home this season, while holding opponents to 60 points or less, but those were games where Eastern was the heavy favorite to win.

Thursday night, Eastern was hosting Tennessee-Martin, who has one of the OVC’s most lethal offensive attacks.

The Skyhawks had the fourth-highest scoring offense in the OVC entering Thursday’s game, averaging 76.3 points per game.

On top of that, the Skyhawks have three (healthy) players who average in double-figures, all three of whom are in the top-10 of scorers in the OVC: Parker Stewart is second in the conference, averaging 19.6 points per game, Quinton Dove is fifth at 17.7 points per game and Derek Hawthorne Jr. is ninth at 14.1 points per game.

And yet, Eastern held that high-powered offense in check pretty well, more so in the first half.

As Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour put it after the game, it was good enough to win.

It did help that the Panthers were on fire offensively.

But defensively, in the first half alone, Eastern stole the ball from the Skyhawks six times.

At the start of the game, Tennessee-Martin was penetrating to the lane pretty well and was getting a lot of dishes inside to Dove, who gladly finished the high-percentage shots.

Stewart and Dove are great players in their own right, so they were going to score. They finished with 27 points each to lead all scorers.

But what really helped Eastern was that the Skyhawks did not get production from the rest of their lineup.

Hawthorne Jr. only had two points in the first half, on 0-of-5 shooting from the floor. He finished with just eight points, and Miles Thomas was the only other Skyhawk, beside Dove and Stewart, who scored in double-digits (13 points).

Only three other Skyhawk players scored, and they combined for just eight points.

And, for what it is worth, Stewart showed clear signs of frustration at times when trying to get open for a shot.

Eastern had tight defense all around, but like it has been this season, sometimes Eastern defenders could get a little too aggressive and let their mark get to the lane.

On top of that, in the second half especially, Eastern was not as disciplined on defense as it should be, and the Skyhawks capitalized on that to give Eastern a good scare.

The times the Panther defenders did get beat on the perimeter, though, the help defense was there and did well for the most part.

Most of the Skyhawks’ points in the paint were on first-time shots, not second-chance points, so Eastern did well to rebound and keep them off the boards.

If there are a couple of Eastern players to pick out specifically, Shareef Smith and Marvin Johnson did a great job of defending.

“That was a focus of our gameplay to try and contain (Stewart and Dove), so I think we did a very good job,” Smith said.

“Marvin (Johnson) did as good a job at making (Stewart) take hard shots, I think he did a good job,” Spoonhour said. “Shareef (Smith) did good too.”

Both shared time defending Stewart and they both fought well to make him earn a lot of his points, which included some tough shots you really just cannot defend.

Stewart did not have many, if any, wide open shots, and he did not have many easy shots.

But Stewart and the Skyhawks were able to make Eastern pay for its tight and aggressive defense, getting to the foul line 22 times and making 18 of their free throws in the second half.

In the first half, the Skyhawks only shot eight free throws (made seven).

While the Skyhawks have not attempted the most free throws in the conference, going into Thursday’s game, they were first in the OVC in free throw percentage (73.1).

So, once they got their free throw opportunities, they were able to give Eastern a scare and get to within single digits with eight-and-a-half minutes left in the game (Eastern led 77-68, after having a halftime lead of 57-37).

“I think they were trying to focus on attacking more because I think some of our bigs maybe, might have been in a little bit of foul trouble, so I think that was kind of their focus,” Smith said.

JaQualis Matlock was the Eastern big in foul trouble the most, fouling out of the game with five minutes left. George Dixon also had four fouls.

Spoonhour complemented what Smith said about Tennessee-Martin’s second-half attack.

“They just drove it. We were lackadaisical in the second half, we didn’t have the same energy as we needed to have,” Spoonhour said.

Overall for the night, though, Eastern’s defense played tough inside and on the perimeter, and played aggressively.

The downside is that as well as Eastern’s players guarded inside and out, they were not great when it came to discipline, as a lot of the Skyhawks’ chances at the line came from Eastern defenders hacking at a shot or swinging at a dribble to try and steal it.

While Stewart and Dove had big nights for the Skyhawks, Eastern contained them enough, while also not letting the rest of the Skyhawks score much at all, to contain the high-powered Tennessee-Martin offense and nab another conference victory.


Dillan Schorfheide can be reached at 582-2812 or [email protected]