CHARLESTON — Citing Michigan State’s stunning 30-point lead on its way to a 72-52 rout of fourth-ranked Michigan on Tuesday and his own team’s hot-and-cold games recently, Eastern Illinois coach Jay Spoonhour makes no promises.
But he senses that another of college basketball’s puzzles Austin Peay could be primed to start its comeback run in today’s 7 p.m. Ohio Valley Conference men’s basketball game at Lantz Arena.
“This time of year everybody knows everybody pretty well,” Spoonhour said. “You never know what direction teams are going. I can guarantee you Austin Peay will be ready to play. You look at them and the schedule they have remaining. They probably have to win them all and they probably can.”
Certainly, a couple of months ago no one would have called it unfathomable that Austin Peay could win its last five OVC games, especially considering four of the opponents have losing league records.
What might have sounded absurd would have been that the Governors would now be 5-20 overall and 1-10 in the OVC trying to catch among others Eastern, 7-18 and 4-8, for one of the conference’s eight postseason tournament berths.
Maybe giving Austin Peay a big push down the stairs in what was the third of its now eight-game losing streak, was a 77-67 decision that marked Eastern’s first win at Clarksville, Tenn., since Jan. 27, 1998.
That also snapped a 12-game EIU losing streak spring boarding the Panthers to three straight wins and four out of five and now in contention for a postseason berth that had earlier had seemed to be just wishful thinking.
In the earlier meeting Austin Peay was playing without injured senior point guard Jerome Clyburn, who started 26 games last season including a career-high 18 points in the Govs’ 76-64 win at Eastern.
The difference Clyburn makes?
“I think significant,” Austin Peay coach Dave Loos said. “He’s made a lot of hustle plays. He’s a vocal leader and he has hit some big shots.”
After missing 19 games, Clyburn returned to action three games ago and with him Austin Peay went overtime with OVC West Division leader Murray State and East contender Tennessee State before losing showing signs that the Govs are still the program where Loos is the league’s winningest coach in history including six straight winning seasons before last year.
“We’re playing a little better but we’re not getting any better results,” Loos said. “We played well against Murray and Tennessee State but we finished second and that’s no good.”
Still, the Govs are again showing what they can do.
“They were without their point guard for a good part of the year,” Spoonhour said. “I think he makes a huge difference. I thought (Jeremy) Purvis did a really good job against us.
“They’re a different team than when we played them. They are playing better.”
The Eastern team that beat Austin Peay the last time certainly has Loos’ attention.
“They picked us a part with their patience,” the Govs coach said. “The back blocks hurt us. I thought they executed their offensive very well.
“We’ve got to guard better that’s for sure and against them you have to guard against the whole shot clock. Not a lot of teams do that so that’s a focus.”
Eastern has had one of those unpredictable college basketball stretches recently shooting 1-for-17 from 3-point range in a 49-45 loss at SIU Edwardsville, hitting a season-high 12 3s in 19 tries in a 93-65 rout at UT Martin and then falling behind by 25 points in Saturday’s 77-64 loss at Southeast Missouri.
Spoonhour hopes the most recent defeat serves as a lesson for the Panthers entering this home stretch toward a postseason berth.
“We have to play together,” the EIU coach said. “When we venture very far from that we don’t look good. We did that against SEMO first half. We did a good job from the Austin Peay game until then and for some reason didn’t do that against SEMO.”
Now the Panthers, who would be the No. 8 seed if the OVC tourney started today, might be able to cross Austin Peay off the list of teams that could take that berth from them by winning tonight in this race that has five teams trying to get the last three spots playing in Nashville, Tenn., next month.
“I think if we win one more we have a shot and if we win two more we are in it,” Spoonhour said. “We are in a good spot where if we can win at least two we should be all right.”
Loos mentions no numbers in his team’s bid to avoid being among the three left out of the tourney along with ineligible Jacksonville State.
“I quit worrying about that to be honest,” he said. “I don’t know what it will take. I’m sure we’ve got ourselves in a position where we not only need to win some games but get some help from other teams. We’re looking from the basement, that’s for sure.”
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AUSTIN PEAY (5-20) AT EASTERN (7-18)
Tip-off: about 7 p.m. today at Lantz Arena in Charleston
Radio: WEIU Hit Mix 88.9 FM
Probable Austin Peay starters: forwards – Will Triggs, 6-6 jr. (12.2 points, 5.1 rebounds per game); Anthony Campbell, 6-7 sr. (14.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg); center - Chris Horton, 6-8 fr. (7.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg); guards – Jerome Clyburn, 6-1 sr. (2.6 ppg, 1.1 rpg); Travis Betran, 6-3 jr. (17.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg)
Probable Eastern Illinois starters: forward - Josh Piper, 6-8 so. (10.2 points, 4.2 rebounds per game); Sherman Blanford, 6-6 jr. (10.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg); guards - Austin Akers, 6-2 sr. (5.4 ppg, 2.6 rebounds); Taylor Jones, 6-2, sr. (5.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg); Morris Woods, 6-3 jr. (9.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
Notes: Piper scored 20 points, his second highest game of his college career, Blanford had 19 point, 10 rebounds and six assists and Jones matched his collegiate high with 14 points in Eastern’s 77-67 win on Jan. 19 at Austin Peay. Trigg and Betran had 14 each for Austin Peay, which still has a 23-14 series lead including 13 of the last 15 meetings. Eastern is 10-8 against the Governors at Lantz Arena. . .Eastern is to play host to Murray State on Saturday when career scoring record holder Henry Domercant’s No. 44 jersey is to be retired and former coach Rick Samuels with his 1992 and 2001 NCAA tournament teams are to be recognized. The game is schedule for 6 p.m. after a 4 p.m. women’s game.