The first two times the Eastern Illinois men's basketball team played Tennessee State, both games went down to the wire. In the first game against the Tigers, which was at Lantz Arena, on Jan. 11, TSU made a couple of more plays down the stretch and pulled out a 69-65 win. A couple of weeks later the two teams met in Nashville and once again, TSU made a couple of more plays down the stretch to claim a 50-47 win.
But those two games were over a month ago. Neither team is really the same as they face each other for the third time, this time at the OVC Tournament at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana.
After dealing with a few injuries, EIU's offense has started to take shape. The first two times the teams met, the Panthers were struggling to score more than 60 points in a game. In the last seven games, EIU has scored more than 60 points in every contest and its lowest point total was 64 in that stretch, which was a 64-57 win over UT Martin to clinch a spot in the OVC Tournament.
TSU's second win over EIU part of the start of a long winning streak for the Tigers. After beating SIU Edwardsville and EIU, the Tigers won their next seven games, which included a victory over Belmont, which is the No. 2 seed in the OVC Tournament. Granted, the Tigers come into the tournament on a three game losing streak after falling to Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee Tech and Belmont.
"It's going to be a game that's slow again and every basket will matter," EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. "It's a deal where I think we've improved but they have, too. They are coming off a stretch where they won seven in a row and beat some good teams. They've got as physical of a team as anyone in the league."
The winner of Wednesday's game moves on to face Austin Peay at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday in the OVC Tournament. Austin Peay is the number three seed and beat EIU twice this season (70-54 on Dec. 30, 2017, and 76-69 on Feb. 10).
This is EIU's 15th appearance at the OVC Tournament and the fifth time in the last six seasons under Spoonhour. EIU is the No. 7 seed and TSU is the No. 6 seed. Murray State and Belmont got the top two spots. EIU is 6-13 all-time in the OVC Tournament and is 0-5 playing as the No. 7 seed. The last win at the OVC Tournament for EIU was back in 2015 against SIUE. EIU won the tournament back in 2001.
Spoonhour said the key thing coming into the OVC Tournament is for the team to not go out and do things they are uncomfortable with.
"The thing about tournaments, if you go out and get some enthusiasm and excitement and play well, you can play well. It's been known to happen in tournaments," Spoonhour said. "Nobody goes out and does things they haven't done. A guy like (Aboubacar Diallo) can be a force around the basket and (Montell Goodwin) and (Mack Smith) can make shots. We need to go out and defend and rebound. It won't be a new thing we haven't shown before."
Rebounding will be key against TSU with Christian Mekowulu, who was just named the OVC Defensive Player of the Year. Mekowulu grabbed eight rebounds, four offensive, in the first meeting and then had 10 rebounds in the second game. He scored 27 points in the second meeting. Mekowulu was 19-of-23 from the free throw line in the two games combined.
"He's had good games both games and he's just a hard guy for us to stop. He scores a few different ways, some from posting up, but really, he probably does the best at going and getting offensive rebounds and he gets some points from the guards penetrating," Spoonhour said. "Their guards are fast and strong and can get into the lane and do a good job of finding him. There were some easy points that they got that you have to stay away from."
TSU is averaging 66.4 points per game and is shooting 42.4 percent from the field. Delano Spencer leads TSU with 15.4 points per game and Mekowulu is averaging 12.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Darreon Reddick hit three three-pointers in the first game and finished with 12 points.
EIU could be without D'Angelo Jackson for the second straight game. Jackson suffered an ankle injury against Austin Peay back on Dec. 30, 2017, and was out until EIU played at Southeast Missouri State on Feb. 15. But Jackson re-aggregated the injury against Murray State last Thursday and he missed the SIUE game. Jackson is questionable for Wednesday's game.
Goodwin, who was named to the All-OVC Second Team, averages 14.8 points per game this season and has made 69 three-pointers. He also has 95 assists and 30 steals. Mack Smith, who was named to the All-OVC Newcomer team, averages 12.0 points per game and has hit 49 three-pointers this season.
Spoonhour said the team is going to have to find a way to score in the paint in order to beat TSU.
"Sometimes we are too reliant on jump shots and I like for us to get more lay-ins on cuts or curls and postups. More easy buckets," Spoonhour said. "We get a little too enamored with shooting jumpers. The reason we've won some of these games is because guys have shot it well, though. Some of Mack's best games are when he drives. Getting to the foul line will be a big deal."