Panthers defeat Jacksonville State in 1st round of OVC Tournament.

Blake Faith, Men's Basketball Reporter

EVANSVILLE, IND- Eastern’s men’s basketball team started slow offensively, but secured a lead late in the first half and finished strong in the second half to defeat Jacksonville State 67-61.

The Panthers were led by their leading scorers, juniors Josiah Wallace and Mack Smith, who combined for 42 of the Panthers’ 67 points.

“The game looked a lot like the one we won in Charleston,” Eastern head Coach Jay Spoonhour said. “We had a lead and we had to hang on it. Those guys got after it and fought the entire time and we did a good job. We didn’t make the prettiest plays all the time, but we played tough.”

The Panthers began the second half with a 7-0 run behind the inside finishing ability of junior George Dixon and Jordan Skipper-Brown, and a Wallace floater gave the Panthers a 33-22 lead. The Gamecocks responded with a layup and a three-pointer to narrow the score 33-27.

The Panthers then went on a 12-4 run behind Smith and Wallace. Smith scored five straight points by making a cutting layup and a three-pointer. Wallace then scored seven straight points from a layup, a fadeaway jumper and a three-pointer to give the Panthers a 46-31 lead.

The Gamecocks went on a 11-3 run behind the scoring of Jacara Cross, who scored six of the 11 points. After his final points of the run Cross was issued a technical foul for slapping the ball after a dunk.

Wallace converted the technical free throw and hit four straight mid-range shots to end momentum for the Gamecocks. Wallace’s scoring put the Panthers up 58-49 with three minutes and 12 seconds left in the game.

“I think they push you around a little bit and they want to be physical and they’re good at it,” Wallace said. “Tough shots feel for me and the guys were finding me in the right spots. We started playing a more fluent offense in the second half and the shots falling gives you a better feeling.”

The Gamecocks responded by converting four straight free throws to cut the Panthers’ lead to 60-55. Senior Shareef Smith secured a scrappy jump ball call and an offensive rebound for the Panthers to find Wallace who was fouled and went 1-of-2 from the free throw line. Jacksonville State’s Cam Jones then made a driving layup to cut the Panthers’ lead to 61-57.

Ty Hudson created another rally for the Gamecocks by making a layup and making two free throws to narrow the Panther lead to 65-61. The Gamecocks fouled Eastern junior Kashawn Charles, where he stepped to the line and made both free throws to give the Panthers a 67-61 lead.

In the first three minutes of the first half the Panthers combined 0-of-4 to start, with Dixon and senior JaQualis Matlock missing two shots each. The Panthers went on to shoot 5-of-9 from the three-point line and 11-of-29 overall.

The Panthers opened their scoring when Charles made a three-pointer right after coming off the bench. The Panthers used that play to build a 10-4 run.

“The game started like a lot of conference games and tournament games where everybody is a little jittery,” Spoohnour said. “Kashawn (Charles) goes right in and makes one. He makes baskets and he gets in there and makes it great.”

Gamecocks’ leading scorer Cross opened the game scoring six of the Gamecocks’ first 11 points. Then Derek St. Hilaire added six points by finishing inside and going 2-of-3 from the free throw line.

The Panthers built on their lead behind a quick five points from Mack Smith to give the Panthers a 15-8 lead. Smith made a three-pointer to extend his streak to 80 consecutive games with a three-pointer made and was found wide-open for a layup.

The Gamecocks took an 18-17 lead, but Dixon blocked a shot after an allowed offensive rebound opportunity to end the Gamecocks’ 9-4 run. The Panthers responded with made three-pointers from Matlock and Charles to give them a 23-18 lead and the last lead of the game for the Panthers.

Charles secured an offensive rebound and layup right before the end of the first half to give the Panthers a 27-22 lead. Charles finished the first half with a game-high 10 points.

“Coach (Spoonhour) is always on me a lot about rebounding, getting in there and playing scrappy,” Charles said. “This game I tried to do what I could do to stay on the floor. So if I’m rebounding I can stay on the floor and I can make shots, so those go hand and hand.”

The Panthers advance to the quarterfinal and will face Austin Peay Thursday at 8:30 p.m.

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