CHARLESTON -- In the first game without four-year starting point guard Terrell Lewis, the Eastern Illinois men’s basketball team looked nothing like a cohesive unit on the floor. The Panthers turned the ball over 18 times with everyone playing a role in giving the ball away against South Alabama.
The Panthers had a short turnaround for a Western Illinois team that not only beat EIU earlier in the season with Lewis, but also were a surprising 7-2. Then the Panthers got stranded in Mobile, Alabama, because they were supposed to fly out of Atlanta, but the airport had a power outage.
So the Panthers had no practice time for a tough Leatherneck squad.
But the senior leadership for EIU stepped up as Muusa Dama, Montell Goodwin and Ray Crossland all made their presence felt early. It’s the senior leadership EIU coach Jay Spoonhour has looked for all season consistently.
Down by 11 points with 6:54 remaining, the Panthers started their comeback. It was completed when D’Angelo Jackson made a mid-range jumper and Goodwin made two free throws late and EIU defeated WIU 78-77 on Tuesday.
The win snaps a four-game losing streak for EIU.
“You can’t understand how it feels when you lose even two in a row. Just two in a row, whether you were supposed to win them or not, you just feel like you are never going to win. It’s the worst feeling ever,” Spoonhour said. “We’ve had a couple of them where you are right there and close and could’ve and should’ve won and it puts a strain on the guys. For us to do this, battling back, I am proud of them and it feels good.”
Spoonhour fell short of calling it a season-changing win. But he also knows it was important for the team to pull off a tough, comeback win.
“It needed to happen just for our psyche,” Spoonhour said. “I told them things are better, you aren’t cured. This doesn’t absolve all of the problems we have because we still have problems we have to sort out. But shoot, I would much rather learn from a win.”
Goodwin, who led the team with 23 points, said this could get things back on track for the 3-7 Panthers.
“We’ve been losing a lot, but I feel like we’ve got it together now,” Goodwin said. “Coming into the game, I knew we would be tired from the travel, but we pulled together and fought together. We had to pick it up because losing Lewis was big, senior point guard.”
Dama set the tone early with a hook shot and two free throws to give the Panthers an early 4-2 lead.
“Dama got it in the goal, which is a big deal because if he making it, it means we are getting dunks in the lane. Now your percentage goes up,” Spoonhour said. “This is two games in a row that Ray gets seven rebounds and that’s what Ray has to do. Dalan Ancrum has gotten so good and Ray did a great job guarding a good player.”
Jeremiah Usiosefe hit a couple of 3-pointers to put Western up 8-4.
Western went up 14-11 after a reverse layup by Brandon Gilbeck, but he picked up his second foul and had to sit out the rest of the half. EIU quickly responded with a runner by Goodwin and a layup by Lucas Jones to go up 15-14.
The two teams traded buckets and the game was tied at 23 when EIU’s offense went through a dry spell. Dalan Ancrum hit a three to put the Leathernecks for good in the first half at 26-23 and it sparked a 16-4 run for WIU.
EIU’s offense didn’t make a field goal from the 8:15 mark of the first half until there was 2:53 left to go when Dama got a steal and finished it off with a dunk. Goodwin added a three and a jumper to help EIU cut the deficit to 43-36 going into the half.
The Panthers got to within four early in the second half when Kobe Webster hit a three. EIU got to within three after a free throw and a three by D’Angelo Jackson to make it 53-50 when Dalan Ancrum hit a three and a free throw to push the game to seven points.
The Leathernecks seemed to have an answer for each EIU bucket in the second half. After starting the half 3-of-12 from the field, WIU hit their next six shots. The last two were a three from Webster and a runner by Ancrum for a 68-57 lead with 6:54 left in the game.
EIU responded with a free throw by Jackson and a putback by Dama to make it 68-60.
Then the Panthers defense picked it up and held WIU to only five points for the next 5 minutes as EIU made it 73-72 with 2:17 left.
Goodwin said the team never thought it was out of it even down by 11 points in the second half.
“We just had to play hard. Our press got them to turn the ball over,” Goodwin said. “We sped them up and it helped us get momentum and crawl back into the game. All we had to do was take it one step at a time and go from there.”
Goodwin hit a runner to give EIU the lead but Webster hit a jumper to put WIU back up. Then Jackson hit a mid-range jumper and Goodwin made two free throws as EIU went on to win 78-77.
EIU only had eight turnovers in the game.
“D’Angelo and Montell were good and when your guards play well, then everything looks good,” Spoonhour said. “Montell got open looks that went in and he’s been struggling, so good for him to see them go in. When you win, it’s because guys step up and make plays. It’s never some tricky game-plan, it’s because guys make plays.”