Men’s basketball team hosts Murray State, Austin Peay in crucial games

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The Daily Eastern News

Adam Tumino | The Daily Eastern News Mack Smith rises for a three-point shot attempt during Eastern’s 76-74 loss to Southern Illinois Edwardsville Feb. 13 in Lantz Arena. Eastern faces Murray State Thursday after the women’s game.

Vince Lovergine, Men's Basketball Reporter

If there was any time for the Eastern Illinois men’s basketball team to pick up some wins, it is right now.

But it will not be easy as the Panthers welcome the two top teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, with Murray State greeting the Panthers first Thursday and then Austin Peay Saturday.

Eastern is in a tie with Jacksonville State for the eighth spot in the conference at 5-9 but sits one game behind Morehead State.

With both games being at home for Eastern, it could help considering the Panthers lost to the Racers and Governors by a combined seven points on the road.

Eastern played well against Murray State in its first matchup, and Eastern head coach Jay Spoonhour hopes to bring some things from that game into Thursday.

“We had a terrific rebounding effort at their place,” he said. “We won’t be able to rely on that same number again, but hopefully we can defend as well as we did.”

Eastern did start off 7-0 in Lantz Arena, but the Panthers have lost two of its last three on its own court.

Junior guard Mack Smith has been a staple for the team in terms of defense and the ability to create plays for his teammates, and considering Eastern has its two toughest tasks yet, the team could use these big wins.

“Playing smart, hard and controlling the pace of the game,” Smith said. “It will mean a lot to defeat both teams that are at the top of our conference.”

Eastern has lost two games in a row and those came against Southern Illinois Edwardsville and Tennessee-Martin.

Edwardsville and the Skyhawks are No. 9 and 10 in the standings, but they are just one game back of pushing themselves into the playoff picture.

Josiah Wallace has been a spark for the Panthers’ offense lately, reaching 20 or more points in four straight games after dropping 20 against the Skyhawks Saturday night.

Wallace currently leads the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game, but in OVC play he is a different animal, boosting his totals to 19.1 points per game.

And a streak like this has not occurred since 2014 when Sherman Blanford did it with five consecutive games.

Eastern will need a full team effort if it wants to win Thursday, especially from big men George Dixon and Jordan Skipper-Brown. Skipper-Brown posted a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds against Tennesse-Martin, while Dixon nabbed his ninth double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the same game.

“If (Skipper-Brown) is dialed in, he can really impact the game,” Spoonhour said. “He’s been active and against (Tennessee-Martin), he stayed out of foul trouble. Staying on the floor is the first key to having a good game.”

In fact, that was the first time two Panthers players recorded double-doubles in the same game since 2018, also against Tennessee-Martin.

The Panthers remain under .500 right now at 12-14, but they could post a winning record by the season’s end if their cards are dealt right.

Vince Lovergine can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]