CHARLESTON — The Eastern Illinois men's basketball team was able to breathe a sigh of relief after qualifying for the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament with a win over UT Martin. The only thing in question is if the Panthers will get a No. 7 seed or a No. 8 seed. The Panthers (10-17, 6-10) are a game ahead of SIU Edwardsville, which is 5-11 in the OVC, and hosts the Cougars on Saturday. Eastern Kentucky and UT Martin are both 4-12, and EIU has the tiebreakers over both schools.
But before the Panthers can focus on Saturday's game against SIUE, they have to face Murray State, which is battling with Belmont for the top seed in the OVC Tournament. So the Racers (22-5, 14-2), which are ranked No. 10 in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major poll, have plenty for Thursday's game at Lantz Arena. The game tips at 7:30 p.m.
After dropping games to Jacksonville State and Belmont in seven days – the Racers' only two losses in OVC play – Murray State has won nine games in a row. The Racers won the first game against EIU this season 80-52 back on Dec. 28.
"It's been a while since we've seen them, and that's been just fine with me," EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. "They've got a really nice team this year."
The Racers come into the game with the best offense in the OVC currently. Murray State is averaging a league-best 80 points per game and is shooting a league-best 49 percent from the field. Plus the Racers are second in the OVC with a 38.2 3-point percentage. During the nine-game winning streak, Murray State has scored 80 or more points four times and 75 or more points in eight of the nine games. The lowest output was 66 points in a 13-point win over UT Martin on Feb. 3.
Jonathan Stark not only leads Murray State with 21.6 points per game, but he's also tops in the OVC. In OVC play only, Stark is averaging 25.3 points per game. He's also fifth in the OVC with 4.0 assists per game, and he's second in free-throw percentage at 89.6 percent. He's fifth in steals with 1.5 per game and fourth in three-point percentage at 42.5 percent. He leads the OVC with 3.6 3-pointers made per game, and he's second in the conference at 36.0 minutes played per game.
Murray State has plenty of other weapons besides Stark. Terrell Miller is averaging 14.8 points per game and is sixth in the OVC with 7.7 rebounds per game. He's second in the OVC with 6.7 defensive rebounds per game. Freshman Ja Morant is averaging 12.4 points per game, and he is second in the OVC with 6.4 assists per game.
Stark had 21 points, three 3-pointers and four assists in the first game against EIU; Morant had a triple-double with 11 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds; and Miller had 11 points and eight rebounds. Shaq Buchanan added 15 points and eight rebounds.
"Morant was great in our first game," Spoonhour said. "His presence at point guard, it allows Stark to do what he is good at."
Murray State's defense has also been solid this season. The Racers are third in the OVC at 66.2 points per game and teams are only shooting 41.2 percent from the field, second-best in the OVC. During the winning streak, Murray State has held three teams to 60 points or under, and five of the games Murray State has held the opponent to 65 points or fewer.
"I think their defense has been really solid as well," Spoonhour said. "They keep guys in front and have enough size at the goal to make it hard to get anything easy."
EIU is averaging 66.4 points per game and is shooting 42.2 percent from the field. Montell Goodwin leads EIU with 14.9 points per game, and he's averaging 16.9 in OVC play. He's fifth in the conference with 2.4 3-pointers made per game, and he's fourth in the OVC by averaging 34.9 minutes played per game. Freshman Mack Smith is averaging 11.5 points per game, including 13.4 points per game in league play.