RICHMOND, Ky. — Up by 15 points with 11 minutes left, the Eastern Illinois men’s basketball team was poised to pick up its second straight Ohio Valley Conference road win in what EIU coach Jay Spoonhour considers one of the toughest road trips in the conference.
But the game started to slip away. EKU went on a 10-3 run to get back into the contest, and it seemed like the Panthers started to self-destruct. EIU was even called for a technical foul for taking a timeout it didn’t have.
Still, the Panthers remained up by a point and they regrouped just enough in the final minute to hold off EKU.
Ray Crossland got a steal with 24 seconds left for EIU, and even though the Panthers missed the front end of a one-and-one with 7 seconds remaining, EIU’s defense didn’t allow EKU to get a final shot off as the Panthers escaped with a 54-53 victory over Eastern Kentucky on Saturday.
“It feels like an escape, it does,” Spoonhour said. “But I am not going to question it too much. If you get any road win, you don’t try and pick apart what went wrong. It’s probably not how I would tell the guys to close it out, but we did enough at the end.
“We missed free throws, we did everything wrong, but we still found a way to win.”
EIU improves to 6-11 overall and 2-2 in the OVC. Coming into the road trip against Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky, the Panthers lost all nine of their road games on the season, including the first two games of OVC play.
But the Panthers broke through with a win at Morehead State on Thursday and then pulled off the win against EKU, giving EIU a 2-2 record in four challenging OVC road games. The first road trip went through Murray State and Austin Peay.
“To sweep this road trip, it’s a big deal,” Spoonhour said. “Playing four games early on the road, if you can steal one or two, it’s a good thing. These conference games, it’s all about stealing road wins.”
Muusa Dama helped EIU control a good portion of the game. Last season, Dama helped contain EKU forward Nick Mayo, who is one of the best players in the conference. Dama stepped up to the challenge again this season.
Mayo finished the game with 12 points, but it was on 4-of-12 shooting, and 4 of his points came at the free-throw line. He only had five rebounds and turned the ball over three times.
Dama didn’t have the same stat line. He scored 10 points in the first half and finished with 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting. He was 6-of-9 from the free-throw line. Dama grabbed 13 rebounds to finish with his 10th career double-double and he added two blocks.
“He was outstanding and that’s really the kind of games guys have to have,” Spoonhour said. “When you win, it’s because of guys had that. We are all just searching for more consistency and they want it, too. When a guy can do that, (Muusa) is capable of doing that on a consistent basis.”
Dama grabbed 13 of EIU’s 40 rebounds on the day as the Panthers won the rebounding battle 40 to 36. Jajuan Starks had nine boards, and Aboubacar Diallo had six rebounds and three blocks.
Defensively, EIU held the Colonels to 33.3 percent (18-of-54) shooting and forced 12 turnovers.
“The first half, I wanted us to get on the glass more than we did. I think there were some gaps where we could’ve,” Spoonhour said. “We did a nice job on defense. EKU did some things in the second half that was hard to defend, but we were smart and played hard. Only thing I wish we hadn’t done is foul too much because they were soft fouls.”
Montell Goodwin finished with 15 points for EIU and had six rebounds. Mack Smith added 8 points.