CHARLESTON — It was a tough task right off the bat for the Eastern Illinois women’s basketball team on Friday when the Panthers hosted Northern Illinois at Lantz Arena in the season opener. The Huskies were coming off a 21-win season and had one of the best offenses in the nation, averaging more than 80 points per game last season.
It didn’t take long for NIU to find a rhythm offensive, either. NIU made six of its first nine shots and never really slowed down. The Huskies finished with 93 points and shot 53.8 percent from the field to beat EIU in the season opener 93-64 on Friday.
“Anytime you play a good team and they play really good, you want to give credit to them,” EIU coach Matt Bollant said. “Northern Illinois was fifth in the country in scoring last year, they lost a good point guard, but the other kids stepped up and played great tonight. Give them a lot of credit. They came to our court and dictated and they were the most aggressive team and they were great.”
EIU’s defense was a mixed bag throughout the game. Bollant felt the defense could’ve played better in the first quarter, but the Panthers started to force the Huskies into some mistakes in the second. At halftime, NIU turned the ball over 13 times, but only scored eight points off those turnovers.
Even with the turnovers, NIU still shot 50 percent in the quarter and shot at least 50 percent better in every quarter in the game.
“I felt like we fought, we had 13 turnovers at half, but we are not very aware and that’s something that we have to grow at,” Bollant said. “You can’t be a great defender if you aren’t aware and if you don’t talk, and we are just not really good in those areas. I thought our fight, at times, was decent. We forced some turnovers because of our fight, but we have to talk better and have to be aware.”
Down by double digits, the Panthers got a little too eager to shoot the ball from beyond the arc. Out of the 70 shots EIU took in the game, more than half were from 3-point range, but the Panthers only finished 9-of-36 from long range.
“I think 36 out of 70 is too many shots for sure, especially when you shoot 25 percent,” Bollant said. “If we shoot 35, 40 percent, I don’t care how many 3s we take. We played hard defensively, but we lacked poise on the offensive end. We just shot it a little too quick and sped ourselves up on the offensive end.”
EIU guard Grace Lennox, who finished with 17 points, said the team tried to play at the same pace as NIU in the game.
“We talked about it before the game, they are a quick team and they want to get quick shots and they want to push the ball down our throat and get a quick shot,” Lennox said. “Coach was getting us to slow it down a bit, but we hadn’t really played against a team like that yet, and we just have to learn from it and be better next game.”
The two teams kept pace with each other early when a 6-2 run gave NIU a 21-16 lead going into halftime. The Huskies extended the lead early in the second quarter to go up 28-16 when EIU held NIU to only two points over the next 4 minutes.
But EIU’s offense struggled too much in the second quarter to gain enough ground. The Panthers didn’t score until the 5:32 mark of the quarter on a jumper by Lennox. EIU only scored 10 points in the second quarter.
“I thought the key was the second quarter, mainly our offense in that quarter, going 3-for-19,” Bollant said. “We weren’t great defensively in the first quarter, but we were fighting the first 5, 6 minutes of the second quarter, and then we just missed shot after shot and didn’t get it going and then we hung our heads a bit.”
NIU then went on a flurry before the end of the half with a 12-4 run to take a 42-26 lead at halftime.
“I think the three 3s they made (late), it felt like we were doing okay defensively and then just like that, they had a decent margin,” Bollant said. “That was kind of the game.”
EIU hit a few 3s in the third quarter, but NIU still kept control of the game and went into the fourth quarter up 61-44.
NIU added 32 points in the fourth quarter and went on to win 93-64.