Women’s basketball team defeats Gamecocks 49-46, first tournament win since 2010

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Dillan Schorfheide | The Daily Eastern News Eastern's fan section at the OVC Tournament cheers on the women's basketball team as the Panthers leave the court. Eastern defeated Jacksonville State 49-46, its first tournament win since 2010.

JJ Bullock, Editor-in-Chief

EVANSVILLE, IND- The Eastern women’s basketball team came out on top in a tug-of-war between two defensive heavyweights, beating Jacksonville State 49-46 in the first round of the OVC Tournament Thursday.

Scoring was expected to be low in the game, which featured the OVC’s second-and-third-best defenses, but even a 49-46 final score seemed especially low. 

But both teams played tight and unrelenting defense in what would eventually turn into Eastern’s first conference tournament win since 2010. 

Eastern shot just 34 percent in the game and Jacksonville State shot 32 percent as both teams played on-brand defensively and then some. 

“We knew it was going to be a fight, especially in the tournament,” Eastern guard Taylor Steele said. “No one wants to go home the first game.”

Steele led Eastern with 11 points in the game, Lariah Washington added 10. 

Eastern head coach Matt Bollant predicted Wednesday the winner of the game may be the first one to reach 60 points, but even he had a feeling that figure could be a little high. 

The tug-of-war between the two defenses started in the first quarter and persisted until the clock hit zero. Eastern led by just one point at halftime, then Jacksonville State stormed back in the third quarter, holding Eastern to just 4-of-15 shooting to take the lead late. 

At one point in the fourth quarter Jacksonville State led Eastern by 10 points. 

Eastern clawed back, however, as sophomore guard Jordyn Hughes scored five points late in the third quarter to keep the game in reach, and freshman Morgan Litwiller hit two crucial baskets in the fourth quarter to keep Eastern within striking distance.

One of Litwiller’s baskets gave Eastern a two-point lead with two minutes to play. 

“We got down 10 and I said, ‘Just get your eyes off the scoreboard and keep playing,’” Bollant said. “We talked a lot about enjoying the journey and let’s go make a play and we’ll focus on the next one and I was proud. We didn’t start doing our own thing, we didn’t panic when we were down 10, we stayed the course and different players stepped up and made plays.”

This was not the first time this season Eastern has crawled back from down double-digits late, so Eastern knew what had to be done to erase Jacksonville State’s 10-point fourth quarter lead. 

“We just had to keep doing what we know we had to do and even though we weren’t making shots we had to defend and just restart at the fourth quarter,” Steele said. 

Eastern’s all-conference guard Karle Pace struggled to get much going on offense in the first three quarters of the game and she finished with just eight points on 1-of-13 shooting. 

But Eastern’s star player still found a way to impact the game late, hitting four pivotal free throws late in the game to seal Eastern’s lead, and she also came up with a huge block on defense to prevent Jacksonville State from tying the game late.

“Well actually I definitely had my head down,” Pace said. “It’s rare that that happens, I usually keep my composure but at that point I just couldn’t but, they had my back, my coaches had my back, so I just knew, ‘Next play, next play.’”

Pace’s next play mentality worked and it was one that Eastern as a team adopted late in the game to pull off the comeback against the Gamecocks. 

“I think with coach saying don’t look at the score it helped a lot,” Pace said. “At times you can get caught up looking up like, ‘Oh my gosh we’re down, we’re down, it’s the tournament.’ You know it’s our first game here and it can be very nerve wracking but (Bollant) saying that just kept us focused and getting some motion in our offense and just keep playing.”

Eastern’s first tournament appearance since 2015 and first tournament win since 2010 certainly was a nerve wracking one that came down to the wire. But Eastern will now have to turn around and play the No. 1 seed Tennessee-Martin at 1 p.m. Friday. 

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]