CHARLESTON — By tipoff, there wasn't much drama involved with the Eastern Illinois men's basketball game at Lantz Arena against SIU Edwardsville.
The Cougars came into the day potentially playing for a spot in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, but Morehead State beat Eastern Kentucky before the Cougars game against EIU even started. So because of that EKU loss, SIUE knew they were in the tournament.
EIU wasn't playing for an OVC Tournament spot since the Panthers clinched their spot a week ago in the win over UT Martin.
All that was really on the line was the seed for each team. If EIU won, the Panthers would be the No. 7 seed in the tournament and SIUE would be the No. 8 seed. If SIUE won and got some help, the Cougars would ascend into the No. 7 seed.
But the Panthers weren't really worried about being the No. 7 seed or the No. 8 seed. They just wanted to go into the OVC Tournament playing well.
The Panthers accomplished that simple goal. With 6:50 left in the second half, EIU went on a 14-0 run to separate itself from SIUE, and the Panthers went on to win 68-56 to clinch the No. 7 seed in the OVC Tournament.
"We just wanted to get off to a good start because tournament play starts next week," said EIU senior guard Montell Goodwin, who scored 12 points and had five assists. "We just have to come out hard because if we lose we are out."
EIU plays at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday against Tennessee State in the first round of the OVC Tournament at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana.
Playing for a seed didn't matter too much for the Panthers because for one, they wouldn't know who they would match up with until the end of all of the OVC games on Saturday, and two, if they weren't playing well going into the tournament, it didn't matter who the Panthers played.
EIU (11-18, 7-11) has had its bumps this season because of various injuries and a few tough losses, but EIU coach Jay Spoonhour thinks the team has come together over the past six to seven games, which is a good sign going into the OVC Tournament.
"You want to be playing well. Sometimes it's a little disjointed, because the way we want to play, it wasn't what this team was geared for at the beginning of the season," Spoonhour said. "We've turned into a hold onto it, slow down, strictly motion team. I think these last six or seven games, we know what we are trying to do."
Crossland led EIU's offense with 18 points, which is a season-high. His previous high was 17 points, which came in the win against SIUE (9-20, 5-13) on Feb. 17. His career-high is 19 points, which was against SIUE last season.
"The first half, I got off to a little bit of a slow start, but my teammates told me to keep shooting the ball and they will fall," Crossland said. "I think I can keep it up because, in the previous years, I was able to play offense, but I just played my role knowing we had the weapons on the team. I played defense and now (coach) needed me to step up on the offensive end, so I am ready to do whatever I need to do to help my team win."
Muusa Dama added 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists, Mack Smith had 12 points and seven rebounds, and Lucas Jones had 6 points and seven rebounds.
EIU won the rebounding battle 38 to 35.
"Lucas, that was the best rebounding game he's had," Spoonhour said. "Sometimes you get seven rebounds because five were on missed rebounds. He got seven rebounds because he had to wrestle the ball away from them and was tough. A lot of guys got six to seven rebounds, and that's what we have to do."
The game didn't get off to the best start for EIU as the Cougars jumped out to a 10-2 lead. The Panthers bounced back with a 13-2 run to take a 15-12 lead with 10:09 left in the first half. EIU didn't trail again in the half.
EIU went into halftime with a 32-28 lead, and the offense stalled in the second half. The Panthers only managed 9 points in the first 11 minutes of the second half, and SIUE took a 45-43 lead with 9:06 remaining.
The two teams traded baskets and SIUE had a 50-49 lead when Jajuan Starks hit a short, turnaround jumper to give EIU the lead. Crossland followed with a 3-pointer as EIU went on a 14-0 run to take control of the game.
"We did a good job (on defense) of knowing who was who and who could do what," Crossland said. "We knew (Jalen Henry) was the one with the hot hand, so we knew to focus on him, and every time he had the ball, to get a hand up."
EIU went up 63-50 with 55 seconds left, and even though SIUE got a few buckets in the final minute, the Panthers went on to win 68-56.
The last time EIU played SIUE, the Panthers had a double-digit lead late, and SIUE made it a one-possession game at the end, but the Panthers held on to win. This time, EIU avoided the same drama.
"It's probably the best that we've closed the game. We've had leads and it's gotten ugly," Spoonhour said. "A 13-point lead with a minute left, it's not over. People think it kind of is and players do, but if they make a 3 and we turn it over and they make another 3 and bam. That's happened to us. From the 6-minute mark, we were solid, more efficient and went after rebounds."