CHARLESTON — Eastern Illinois men's basketball coach Jay Spoonhour experimented a bit on Saturday in order to get more out of his team. After a poor showing in the second half in Thursday's loss against Jacksonville State, Spoonhour tinkered with the lineup for Saturday's game against Tennessee Tech.
Instead of starting Muusa Dama and Jajuan Starks, the second- and third-leading scorers on the team based on points per game, Spoonhour inserted Aboubacar Diallo, who started two games this season and is averaging 11.3 minutes per game, and Lucas Jones, who is averaging 10.4 minutes per game, into the starting lineup.
Then Shawn Wilson, a sophomore walk-on who was the team's manager last season, saw a good amount of time along with Diallo and Jones. Those three combined to play 81 minutes.
Those three also combined to score 14 points, so while they were proving effective in many other ways, the Panthers still needed players to step up offensively.
Mack Smith and Montell Goodwin both did. Smith set the freshman scoring record, which was previously held by Joey Miller's 28 points in a game in 2012, with 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. Smith was 5-of-7 from behind the arc and finished with five rebounds. Goodwin finished with 23 points and six assists on 6-of-12 shooting, including 4-of-5 from behind the arc.
Smith's and Goodwin's offense combined with Wilson's six assists, Diallo's 11 rebounds and three blocks, and Jones' solid play against Courtney Alexander helped EIU pull off an important Ohio Valley Conference win over Tennessee Tech 79-71. The Golden Eagles were tied for third in the OVC coming into the game.
"We needed a win so bad, especially after the way we felt after the game the other day," Spoonhour said. "It's just nice to feel good."
EIU (8-15, 4-8) trailed 32-29 at the half, and Smith said Spoonhour delivered a message that resonated with the team and sparked them going into the second half.
"Coach was on us about how we come out sluggish in the second half, and we better not come out like that again," Smith said. "He got his point across and let us know we had to be men and play strong and most definitely play smart. He knows what group of guys he has. He loves us like his own kids and wants us to learn from our mistakes and keep growing."
The new-look rotation held Tech (16-9, 8-4) to 37.1 percent shooting (23-of-62), which looks better than it was because the Golden Eagles hit three 3-pointers in the final 1:30 to keep the game close.
EIU countered by shooting 55.1 percent (27-of-49) from the field, including 62.5 percent (15-of-24) in the second half. Even with a different rotation, the 79 points were the second-most the Panthers have scored in OVC play, with 80 points against UT Martin on Jan. 18 being the most.
"You know you have to shoot it to do that. Look at Mack and (Goodwin), they hit darn near everything," Spoonhour said. "That’s what you’ve got to do. We shoot 62 percent in the second half, and a lot of that is, Mack didn’t make it all on jumpers. He cut when he needed and got lay-ins. I thought we did a good job guarding them. They are hard to guard, they have good players."
Smith started out hot with a 3-pointer early in the game. He hit back-to-back jumpers in the first half to spark a 10-0 run to give EIU a 23-19 lead. Then in the second half, with the Panthers leading by a point, Smith hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put EIU up 50-43 with 11:54 left in the game. He scored 10 straight points for the Panthers for a 54-47 lead.
"Once again, I play for my brother, Dijon Anderson, who passed away, and that's why I wear No. 3 now and everything is dedicated to him," Smith said. "I get in the gym. Before every game, I am in the gym. Me and (Montell) and a couple of other guys, we are working on our game, getting better. That's what coach wants us to do."
Smith wasn't done, either. He hit a jumper and then a 3-pointer to put EIU up 66-53 with 3:15 left in the game.
"He made jumpers, which is a big deal," Spoonhour said. "To me the best was when he got the back cuts and got it around the goal and got lay-ins. Because you can get in the habit of doing nothing else and shooting jump shots. It worked today because they go in, but they don't always go in, and that's the way it is. If we settle for jumpers, you are back in the 50s (for points). We did a good job of mixing it up."
Smith was quick to point out he wouldn't have this success without Goodwin, who had six assists and 23 points.
"It's all about chemistry. When I first got here, he's been helping me, teaching me the game, where I can get my shots, when to take the shot, when to make the pass, when not to make the pass, how to read," Smith said. "I am just thankful for that. Him as a senior, helping me as a freshman, I am just blessed."
Smith also helped get EIU going at the free-throw line. Tech made some 3s to get back into the game, and Smith went to the line with EIU holding onto a 71-66 lead with 40 seconds left. EIU was 2-of-5 from the line since the 5:52 mark, but Smith hit both of his free throws to put EIU back up by seven. The Panthers didn't miss another free throw as Goodwin hit six straight to seal EIU's victory.
"When you haven't won, you start getting nervous about it, and it can be a deal where you start making mistakes hoping to win," Spoonhour said. "I am glad that we did some things to make it be a win. Not just hoping (Tech) misses. We did some things that we should've done. We held onto the ball, we didn't turn it over. We made foul shots at the end for the most part. That's what we have to do."
Now the Panthers have to do it again and have a tough road contest against SIU Edwardsville on Thursday. The win over Tech shows the progress the Panthers have made in two games, and they look to carry it over to Thursday.
"It shows a lot of teams what they have coming with EIU, and we just have to maintain that," Smith said.