Analysis: Panthers made big plays at right time to clinch semifinals appearance

Dillan+Schorfheide+%7C+The+Daily+Eastern+News%0ALariah+Washington+rises+above+her+defender+for+a+shot+attempt.+Eastern+defeated+Jacksonville+State+49-46+to+advance+to+the+semifinals+Friday+in+the+OVC+Tournament.

Dillan Schorfheide | The Daily Eastern News Lariah Washington rises above her defender for a shot attempt. Eastern defeated Jacksonville State 49-46 to advance to the semifinals Friday in the OVC Tournament.

Blake Faith, Men's Basketball Reporter

EVANSVILLE, IND- Eastern’s women’s basketball team was predicted to finish tenth in the preseason poll and finished last season with an 11-18 record.

This season the Panthers finished fourth in the conference making the OVC Tournament for the first time since 2015, and won their first game in the OVC Tournament since 2010.

Juniors Taylor Steele and Karle Pace have led the team since their freshman year, and the win meant “more than you will ever know” to them as a team.

Eastern head coach Matt Bollant was proud of them and his team.

“I’m happy for them,” he said. “Losing is hard and they stayed the course, they fought and they’ve stayed together.”

The box score showed an unanticipated statline from Pace, but the Panthers found a way to win their first-round tournament game against Jacksonville State.

The Panthers found ways to win by players staying composed and ready to make plays, their help defense and abilities to hit big shots.

During the regular season the Panthers won 55-52 against Jacksonville State. This time the Panthers won 49-46 to advance to the semifinal against Tennessee-Martin.

“It was a close last game so we knew it was going to be a fight especially in the tournament,”  Steele said. “No one wants to go home in the first game.”

Twice in the second half the Panthers were down due to Jacksonville State’s offensive runs. Pace was 1-of-5 in the third quarter and the Panthers relied on sophomore Jordyn Hughes.

In the third quarter the Panthers were down 28-24 when Hughes started her scoring. She began by moving to the right corner and her team found her wide-open for a three-pointer to narrow the lead 28-27. Hughes then drove in to make a layup to give the Panthers a 29-28 lead.

In the fourth quarter the Panthers began down 41-31. Sophomore Abby Wahl began a 7-2 run by knocking down a mid-range jumper, but the contributing plays came from freshmen Morgan Litwiller and Lariah Washington.

“In the fourth quarter we were down by 10 and I just told them to get your eyes off the scoreboard and keep playing,” Bollant said. “We talked a lot about enjoying the journey and just go make a play and focus on the next one.”

Litwiller scored five points in the game, but the points came at the right moments. Litwiller stepped up and made a three-pointer to cut the Gamecocks’ lead to 43-38. Washington then made a mid-range jumper to bring the Panthers to a 43-40 deficit.

Steele tied the game at 43-43 when she made a three-pointer. The game then went nearly three minutes without a point scored, but Litwiller then made a mid-range jumper to give the Panthers a 45-43 lead.

Gamecocks’ guard Nekiyah Thompson made a contested mid-range shot while fouled and converted the and-one free throw to give the Gamecocks a 46-45 lead.  The Panthers responded by beating the full-court press and finding Washington open for a layup to give the Panthers a 47-46 lead.

In the fourth quarter Pace missed a wide-open layup, and plays like that tend to hurt a player’s confidence. But Pace was fouled at the end of the game and made both free throws to give Eastern its 49-46 lead with six seconds left.

Pace, along with other Panthers, found ways to produce for the Panthers on defense. Pace admitted she found comfort hen her coach reminded her constantly the importance of the next play.

“I definitely had my head down and there was a timeout where I just lost it,” Pace said. “My teammates were the reason I could get out of it and they just comforted me. They had my back and my coaches had my back so I know next play, next play.”

Litwiller and Pace blocked crucial shots during the scoring drought to stop the Gamecocks’ offense. The Panthers collectively found a way to disrupt the passing lanes and cause turnovers, which was in part due to their help defense.

The Panthers harassed the ball handlers forcing them to commit traveling violations or look to pass the ball. The results of the harassment were steals by Washington and Wahl, who put themselves in the right place at the right time.

Wahl led the Panthers defensively by getting to the right spot for steals, grabbing nine rebounds and recording two steals. Washington recorded three steals by disrupting passing lanes and used those steals to create offensive opportunities for the Panthers.

Eastern’s women’s basketball team will play against Tennessee-Martin Friday at 1 p.m.

Blake Faith can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]