Panthers’ 2019-20 season viewed as success

JJ Bullock, Editor-In-Chief

Two years ago the Eastern women’s basketball team wrapped up a 3-26 season in February with a win over Southern Illinois Edwardsville in Lantz Arena. That season as a whole was a disappointment in almost every way it could be diced up.

But even then the Panthers, who at the time were a young team that started five underclassmen, including three freshmen, could tell that something was brewing in the future for the program. At the end of that three-win season head coach Matt Bollant, then in his first year at Eastern, said what the team missed that season was the presence of upperclassmen and if the team had more, they would have been more successful.

Fast-forward to 2019-2020 and you can see what Bollant said then rings true now. All those underclassmen starting in 2017-2018 were upperclassmen this season and the success that was promised two years ago sprang to life this season.

The Panthers won 19 games this season and finished fourth in the OVC with a 12-6 conference record, made their first OVC tournament appearance since 2015 and won their first tournament game since 2010. Junior guard Karle Pace was an All-OVC first-team selection, as was freshman Lariah Washington. Washington was named the OVC Freshman of the Year, the first Eastern player to win that award since the 2009-2010 season.

Where 2017-2018 was a disappointment in almost every way, the Panthers 2019-2020 season will be one that is viewed as a success in almost every way.

“We were picked 10th (in the preseason poll), we won five conference games last year and to go from five to 12 is a really huge jump, especially with losing Grace Lennox who was a pretty important part of our team last year as well,” Bollant said. “We felt like we were going to be better overall, but you don’t really know and especially with a lot of young kids, kids that hadn’t played before.”

Bollant added what makes the season even more of a success was how Eastern incorporated its new young players, like Washington, guard Kira Arthofer and forward Abby Wahl, successfully into the lineup and how the team overcame losing junior guard Taylor Steele to illness for six weeks.

The Panthers had a feeling they were going to be an improved team this season, how improved was hard to say in the preseason however. Eastern’s season started with a blowout win over Lindenwood, which was then followed by losses to Indiana State and Loyola-Chicago. Even then it was tough to tell who the Panthers were.

But it was the Panthers’ next two games: an 80-45 win over Illinois-Chicago and a 90-44 win over Evansville, that really gave Bollant indications that his team might be much better than they were the previous two years.

“I think we got a little bit of a feeling when we went to UIC and Evansville and just pounded those teams,” Bollant said. “UIC by 35 and Evansville by 46 and I think you know, that didn’t happen in the past. We had some quality wins before, but not to that extent. And when you get into conference play, you don’t know, because everybody is better and everybody is different from the year before and to go on the road and win three of our first four on the road, when we had only won one conference road game in two years, then I felt pretty good about ‘gosh, you know we’re going to be quite a bit better.’”

Eastern conference season began with three road wins in its first four games and eventually culminated into what Bollant said was the highlight of the season in beating Tennessee-Martin (finished 16-2 OVC, first-place) 74-70 in Lantz Arena on Jan. 23.

The Panthers went on to win seven more conference games after that, securing a tournament berth after a Feb. 20 win against Murray State in Lantz Arena. Eastern got its first tournament win since 2010 against Jacksonville State 49-46 in Evansville on March 6.

If Bollant had to give out a team MVP award, he said he would give it to Pace, who finished the season averaging 16.6 points per game and found a knack for hitting big shots late in games all season long. Washington, who averaged 11.2 points per game, was also in his MVP conversation.

Wahl was tagged as Bollant’s most-improved player from a season ago. The sophomore scored 11.8 points per game and grabbed a team-high 5.4 rebounds per game as well.

Eastern will return four players to next year’s team who scored in double-digits this year, and if the starting lineup stays relatively similar, will be starting four upperclassmen and a sophomore in Washington who was an All-OVC player as a freshman.

“That is pretty significant returning four kids that scored that much and played that much of a role,” Bollant said. “So we think we’re going to be better. We’re excited about where we’re going, but you’ve got to go out there and take it because no one is going to give you anything.”

 

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