CHARLESTON — The Eastern Illinois women's basketball team has a chance to play spoiler on Thursday when the Panthers host Murray State for a 5:15 p.m. tip at Lantz Arena. Even though the Panthers (2-25, 1-15) are already eliminated from the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, the Racers are trying to clinch a spot on Thursday.
Murray State comes in with a 6-10 OVC record, 10-17 overall, and is sitting in the eighth spot in the seedings. Eastern Kentucky is right behind at 5-11, and Tennessee State is 4-12. A win by Murray State on Thursday clinches a spot for the Racers, but EIU could put their spot in jeopardy with a win of its own.
However, EIU coach Matt Bollant isn't focused on a spoiler role. The Panthers are coming off a dismal performance at UT Martin on Saturday. EIU fell behind by double digits early in the second quarter, and the Skyhawks cruised to an 85-57 win.
So right now Bollant's focus is to just have his team play better and to try and snap an 11-game losing streak.
"We are just focused on us. Just disappointed with the way we played on Saturday," Bollant said. "We've had two good days of practice, and we are just trying to get back to playing hard and playing the best we can. We are excited to be back at home and anxious to get back on the floor after a disappointing Saturday."
The Racers won the first meeting 72-61 on Dec. 28. Ke'Shunan James led Murray State with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. James is averaging 21.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
"She's just really quick, and one thing she does that a lot of kids don't, she can kind of see the play ahead of time," Bollant said. "She penetrates and sees her help and see the pass faster and better than about anyone else in the league besides Belmont's point guard Darby Maggard. She's got a motor. She's really athletic and she sees what happens ahead of time."
That vision has allowed James to be one of the top players in the OVC. She's tied for first in scoring with TSU's Tia Wooten, and she's fourth in the league in rebounding. She's fifth in the OVC in steals per game with 2.0, and she leads the league in defensive rebounds with 6.0. She's second in the OVC in minutes played per game with 35.4. She also has 110 assists on the season.
Bollant said it's been hard to stop James for the past couple of seasons.
"One thing, you have to sink. You have to keep her in front because if you help up with the five, she does a great job of finding the five," Bollant said. "The guards really have to sink and keep her in front, and that's a tough task. You have to build a wall because you can't do it one-on-one."
Bria Bethea is averaging 15.3 points per game for Murray State, along with 6.1 rebounds per game.
Defensively, Murray State is at the bottom of the league. The Racers are last in the OVC with 77 points allowed per game, and teams are shooting 46.6 percent against them, also last in the league.
"I don't think they're great defensively. If we are patient, we can work for the right shot," Bollant said. "We scored points at their place, we just didn't get enough shots. Hopefully, offensively we will be patient and shoot a good percentage."
The Panthers are averaging 57.9 points per game and are shooting 36.2 percent from the floor. Karle Pace is averaging 12.2 points per game in OVC play, and Taylor Steele is averaging 11.3 points per game in league play.