CHARLESTON — The Eastern Illinois women's basketball team was challenged in both of its exhibition games. EIU kept up with Indiana State through the first three quarters before taking control of the game in the fourth quarter for a 77-70 win. Then NCAA D-III Rose-Hulman had a lead on EIU at halftime when the Panthers flipped the switch in the second half and went on to win 73-58.
The season-opener on Friday provides a tougher challenge than either of those two teams brought to Lantz, though. At 6 p.m. on Friday at Lantz Arena, the Panthers face Northern Illinois in the season opener. The Huskies are coming off a 21-12 season and finished fourth in the MAC standings at 12-6.
NIU returns three starters and seven letterwinners from last season's team and won their exhibition over D-III Benedictine University 96-28.
"They are going to have a great year. They can score," EIU coach Matt Bollant said. "I am just excited to have the fans come out and see a good opponent at Lantz Arena."
This will be the first of a home-and-home series with NIU. The Panthers are scheduled to return to NIU next season.
Last season the Huskies scored 85.1 points per game. Even though Belmont has had a great offense the past couple of seasons, the Huskies will probably be the best offensive team EIU faces all season.
"I think they are as good offensively as anyone in our league," Bollant said. "They got to the MAC title game and will be as talented offensively as anyone that we will face and are in the same class as Belmont offensively."
NIU provides a tough challenge defensively right away in the first game of the season. Bollant has made defense a focus for the team this season after EIU gave up 71 points per game last season. Against Indiana State, the Panthers already showed an improvement defensively by holding the Sycamores to 70 points after giving up 88 to them last season.
Bollant said the team will have to be sound defensively if it wants to win the season-opener on Friday.
"I told our players today, they remind me a lot of the Southern Indiana men and they are just really skilled and if you don't stop the penetration, it will lead to them making a bunch of threes," Bollant said. "Just be really good at keeping them in front of you."
The Panthers do need to keep up offensively with NIU. EIU scored more than 70 points in both exhibition games, which is an improvement from last season when EIU scored 65.8 points per game.
But the offense was inconsistent at times against ISU and Rose-Hulman. Still, Bollant has seen improvement out of the squad on offense.
"Just make sure we are getting good shot," Bollant said. "If you aren't a good three-point shooter, they will let you shoot it, so it's just making sure that the right kids are taking the right shots."