MARTIN, Tenn. — After beating Illinois in an exhibition game early in the season, making the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament might have seemed like a formality for the Eastern Illinois men’s basketball team.
But nothing is ever that easy for any NCAA Division I team. EIU has dealt with more than a fair share of bumps the road.
The Panthers suffered through injuries to four point guards and had 44 games missed due to the injuries this season. EIU lost the first two games of OVC play by a combined 44 points and later lost six of seven conference games.
Even with all of that, EIU picked up key road wins at Morehead State, Eastern Kentucky and SIU Edwardsville, and wins against Tennessee Tech and UT Martin still put the Panthers in a position to make the OVC Tournament.
A second win over UT Martin on Saturday at the Elam Center, where the Panthers had lost four straight games, would clinch a spot in the OVC Tournament.
EIU built a double-digit lead at the half, but the Skyhawks came back in the second half and took the lead. But a couple of big 3-pointers by Mack Smith and Montell Goodwin helped EIU take control of the game again, and the Panthers punched their ticket to the OVC Tournament with a 64-57 win.
“I think our goals were higher to begin the whole thing, they should’ve been. None of us are particularly fond of how the season went, but for what we’ve had to and the changes we’ve had to make, this is an accomplishment,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. “We are by no means a masterpiece, but the guys keep battling all of the time.”
EIU improved to 10-17 overall and 6-10 in the OVC. The Panthers are currently in the seventh spot and cannot move any higher, but they also can't be bumped out of the tournament now with two games remaining. SIU Edwardsville lost on Saturday to Southeast Missouri State and is a game behind EIU at 5-11. Eastern Kentucky and UT Martin (9-20 overall) are both 4-12 in the OVC.
Goodwin, a senior, said the team never doubted that it could make the OVC tournament.
“I knew we were going to make the tournament. We just had to fight hard because we had a lot of injuries and such. We just had to play for each other,” said Goodwin, who scored 18 points. "It feels good because last year we didn't get in. I just wanted to make sure I got in this year before I leave. I feel like anything can happen in four games in four days."
Even with all of the injuries and the changes to the lineup - EIU has used 11 different starting lineup combinations this season - Spoonhour said the players have made the necessary adjustments in order to get the team to OVC Tournament in Evansville.
“Every guy has had to make an adjustment, and they’ve done a good job," Spoonhour said. "It’s one thing to make an adjustment and just remembering what you are supposed to do and how you are supposed to play, it’s another thing to have to go out and beat other teams with it. We haven’t beat everybody, but we’ve won enough to get in.”
Three-pointers by Dominique Williams and Matthew Butler and a layup by Fatodd Lewis put EIU in an 8-0 hole right away when Spoonhour took a timeout.
Spoonhour kept his message simple early, and that was to not panic. The team didn't.
The Panthers got a 3-pointer from Ray Crossland, who finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, a Mack Smith jumper and a 3 from Goodwin to tie the game at 8-8 with 15:55 left in the half.
The Skyhawks were up 20-16 when Muusa Dama hit a jumper and Crossland and Goodwin each hit a 3-pointer to put EIU up 24-20. That started an 18-2 run for EIU as the Panthers went up 34-22 with 2:22 left in the half. EIU went into halftime with a 36-26 lead.
EIU was up 42-32 with 15:04 left when the Panthers went scoreless for a 6-minute stretch. UT Martin went on an 11-0 run during the drought and took a 43-42 lead.
“We just do that and we do it too much. There’s no easy fix on that. We get awful proud and we stop playing,” Spoonhour said. “We stopped moving offensively and defensively and you can’t do that. … Some of that is because of the changes and not having a true point guard. That doesn’t happen as much if you have players in positions they are comfortable in. But we’ve made it through all that."
UTM had a 53-49 lead when Dama, who scored 12 points, scored on a reverse layup and then Smith, a freshman, hit his first 3-pointer of the game to put EIU up 54-53 with 4:47 left.
“The fact that he wanted to shoot it and not shying away from it was huge,” Spoonhour said. “I thought (Goodwin) had a huge one, too. Both of those guys stepped up.”
The game was tied at 54 when Dama dunked, Aboubacar Diallo made a free throw and then Goodwin hit a 3 to make it 60-54 with 1:46 left.
Goodwin said both Smith’s 3 and his 3 were big shots.
“(Mack’s) 3 gave us energy. We were stagnant on offense and tried to move the ball around and that helped,” Goodwin said. “(My 3) was a big shot because it was down in the shot clock. That puts us up right now.”
EIU went on to win 64-57 and hosts Murray State at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.