Panthers close resurgent season with win

Adam Tumino, Women’s Basketball Reporter

Brian Barrett | The Daily Eastern News
Junior Karle Pace drives past a defender in Eastern’s 73-72 win against Austin Peay on Feb. 22 at Lantz Arena.

It turns out a win against Southern Illinois Edwardsville Saturday was not needed for the Eastern women’s basketball team to clinch the four seed in the upcoming OVC tournament, but the Panthers got the win anyway.

They beat the Cougars 65-62, giving them a 12-6 conference record just two years after posting only two conference wins.

Eastern will face Jacksonville State in the first round of the tournament March 4. Jacksonville State beat Tennessee Tech 64-61 to leapfrog the Golden Eagles for the five seed.

Eastern head coach Matt Bollant said he was proud of the way the team finished the game and the season as a whole.

“We finished 7-2 in our last nine, and gosh we had a ton of close games, and I think it was really good for them to get through the close games and win close games,” he said.

The game against Southern Illinois Edwardsville did not seem like a close game with three minutes remaining and the Panthers winning by 10 points. After being outscored by the Cougars in both the second and third quarter, the Panthers jumped ahead in the fourth.

“We kind of found a way in the fourth quarter to get a little bit of a lead, and hold on from there,” Bollant said.

The Cougars hit several three-pointers in the final minutes after struggling shooting from deep for much of the game. Even with the late makes, Southern Illinois Edwardsville was just 5-of -19 from beyond the arc in the game.

In the first half, the Eastern defense held the Cougars to 26 points on 9-of-29 shooting from the field.

“I thought we defended pretty solid throughout,” Bollant said. “I didn’t think we rebounded very well to start the game but then we got that going better.”

Outside of rebounding, the Panthers were successful in the paint on both offense and defense in the first half. Led by Abby Wahl’s scoring inside, the Panthers outscored the Cougars 20-6 in the paint in the first half.

The Cougars then outscored Eastern in the paint in the second half 20-14, but it was not enough to win the battle inside.

Wahl led the Panthers with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Taylor Steele finished second on the team in scoring, tallying 14 points. She made just three field goals in the game, but went 7-of-9 from the free-throw line, including knocking down a pair with 11 seconds left after the Cougars had cut Eastern’s lead to just one point.

“We’ve been in that situation before, and different players have made plays when it matters,” Bollant said. “Taylor, to come back after having mono and being out for so long, really had a great fourth quarter for us.”

The Panthers play again on Thursday at 1 p.m. against Jacksonville State in the OVC Tournament in Evansville, Indiana.

The Panthers beat the Gamecocks back on Jan. 16 55-52 in what was Eastern’s conference home opener.

Bollant said he is looking forward to the challenge of the tournament.

“I’m thankful for our team,” he said. “To go from five conference wins to 12 is a really big jump. I’m excited for our future and the number of different players who have stepped up and made plays. Hopefully we can make a run in the OVC. We’ll see.”

Adam Tumino can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]