CHARLESTON — The Eastern Illinois women’s basketball team played its best half of the season in the first half against SIU Edwardsville on Saturday at Lantz Arena.
Then the Panthers regressed and only scored 15 points in the second half as their double-digit lead slipped away against the Cougars.
Still EIU found a way to force overtime against the Cougars, who came into the game with the second-best record in the Ohio Valley Conference.
EIU found its first-half form again, and an 8-0 run early gave the Panthers an early lead in the extra period. This time they held on and snapped a 12-game losing streak with a 76-72 win over SIUE on Saturday in the season finale.
EIU head coach Matt Bollant said the team will remember this win throughout the offseason because of how the team was able to step up in overtime.
“Had we played a great second half, it wouldn’t have meant as much,” Bollant said. “We had to dig in, we had to fight and didn’t finish (regulation) well. It means a whole lot more since we had to dig deep and find a way to get it done. It wasn’t easy.”
EIU could’ve avoided overtime and had the final possession of regulation, but Karle Pace’s runner was too strong. But the Panthers didn’t dwell on plays like that, which were frequent in the second half.
Instead, EIU came out with a renewed sense of confidence, which led to the 8-0 run to take the lead in overtime, a lead the Panthers wouldn't relinquish.
Bollant said a bunch of different players stepped up. Taylor Steele finished with 16 points and hit a 3 to give EIU a 6-point lead in the final minute of overtime. Pace had 15 points and five assists, including one to Steele for the 3. Jalisha Smith had a double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds, including 6 points and three rebounds in overtime. Jennifer Nehls had 12 points, Grace McRae had 10 and Carmen Tellez had six assists and a key steal in overtime.
“They are capable and sometimes you need a leader to do that. Losing Grace (Lennox to a season-ending injury), she’s been that leader for them,” Bollant said. “Karle and Taylor have stepped up and today (Jalisha) did. She got to the free line, and it really helped us and gave us a spurt when we were tight. It was good to see different players step up and make plays. They are capable.”
It’s been a season full of trials and tribulations for EIU, which led to only a three-win season (3-26) and only two wins (2-16) in OVC play, which put the Panthers last in the conference standings. The Panthers found a way to finish the season on a positive note.
“We ended the season on a good note,” EIU freshman guard Karle Pace said. “We didn’t have the best season, but coach told us this is the game we are going to think about for the next eight months.”
SIUE (16-13, 13-5) started with a 3-0 lead off three free throws when Pace hit a 3-pointer and Smith scored on a layup to make it 5-3.
EIU had an 11-10 lead when Tellez hit a 3 to spark a 12-2 run to end the quarter for the Panthers. Steele had 5 points during the run, and McRae had 4 as EIU went into the second quarter with a 23-12 lead.
The Panthers didn’t turn the ball over in the second quarter and extended the lead, 45-27, going into halftime.
“I think the girls stuck with the plan, shared the ball, got really good shots and came out ready to go,” Bollant said. “The one thing, the girls spent a lot of time in the gym, and they didn’t always get rewarded for that. Today it showed. We made 10 3s and were 9-of-10 from the field in the first quarter. I just thought we got really good shots. Did a good job with the guards off ball screens and finding our posts rolling. It was a good start with our offense, and it carried over to our defense, too.”
But then EIU struggled offensively and a 5-point third quarter cut the Panthers' lead to 50-42. Then the Panthers only made three field goals in the fourth quarter, allowing SIUE to take the lead 57-56, with 1:58 remaining.
Smith made a free throw and Danielle Berry hit a 3 to put EIU back up when SIUE tied the game at 60 to send it into overtime.
EIU regrouped and even though SIUE made the first bucket of overtime, EIU’s 8-0 run gave them the lead. Steele’s 3-pointer put EIU up by 6 with 41 seconds left, and she added two more free throws with two seconds left to seal the 76-72 win.
“I was nervous because usual, y we haven’t pulled it out, but today I knew we were going to keep going,” Pace said. “I could just see it in everyone that we were going to keep fighting.”