Ohio Valley Conference divisions and the schedule might not be so stacked against Eastern Illinois’ women’s basketball team after all.
In its first season with 12 basketball members divided into two divisions, things seemed to be unbalanced with teams playing opponents from their own geographic division twice but the other side just once.
“I think all of us going into this thing thought the West Division would be the bell cow of the conference,” Morehead State coach Tom Hodges said. “What we’ve seen is maybe more parity than we thought. I for one thought the West Division would be stronger. I think the East may be stronger than I thought.”
Not just the Eastern time zone guys are saying East is beast.
While Eastern Illinois leads the West Division and on Monday handed the East Division’s Tennessee Tech its first conference loss at Lantz Arena, the Panthers also have a loss at East contender Eastern Kentucky.
“I do think a lot of people maybe thought our side on paper would be the stronger but that hasn’t played out,” EIU coach Lee Buchanan said. “Tech has done a good job. Eastern Kentucky has done well and Belmont who we didn’t know a lot about is doing well. It’s scary every night trying to prepare. There are so many styles in our league and you’re trying to prepare for them.”
Coach Kevin McMillan of defending OVC champion UT Martin had to agree.
“Everybody said the West was but if you look at the games the East is,” said McMillan, whose Skyhawks were favored to win the West. “It’s still early but it’s not that early.”
Again with the league’s top two scorers in junior guards Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome, UT Martin was just 7-11 overall and 2-2 in the OVC going into Wednesday night’s game against Southeast Missouri. The Skyhawks had league losses to its West Division contender Murray State and conference newcomer Belmont, who leads the East at 5-1.
“It’s frustrating when you look at what we’ve done in the past but it’s not fair to the kids here now.” McMillan said. “We have two freshmen starting and they don’t know anything about the past. It may be frustrating for the older ones but we’re trying to bring the younger players along by the tournament.”
While Butler’s 22.2 scoring average and Newsome’s 19.8 are no surprise, maybe UT Martin’s pivotal player is in the post in senior Rickesha Bryant, who leads the OVC with her .656 field-goal shooting and is second in the league averaging 2.0 blocks. Averaging 7.6 points for the season, Bryant has averaged 11.0 in four OVC games.
“She is starting to play better,” McMillan said. “She is a senior post player. She is really reaping benefits from the two guards. She’s 6-3, 6-4 with long arms. If she would play hard all the time she could really be good.”
While his team has already beaten UT Martin, Murray State coach Rob Cross is not counting out the Skyhawks.
“You don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Cross said. “We’re unfamiliar with some teams. We’ve lost to home games to two teams from the East Division and won two road games in our division. I think there are three or four teams from the East that can win that division and four or five teams that can win the West Division.”
Belmont coach Brittney Ezell is happy but not yet comfortable with her team’s fashionable 5-1 entrance into the OVC.
“I don’t have enough words to describe my team right now,” Ezell said. “ They’re playing with toughness especially in the second half. We prepared ourselves well for the rigors of this conference with a tough non-conference schedule.
“It’s just tough top to bottom. I’m really kind of wowed at the talent coming into our gym.”
While Larry Joe Inman is hardly new to the OVC having coached Eastern Kentucky in 1988-2008 being inducted into the conference’s Hall of Fame, he is a new coach this year at Tennessee State and getting new impressions.
“I see a lot of teams that are good,” Inman said. “I’m seeing more balanced inside and outside. It used to be a team was inside or the perimeter.”
While Tennessee Tech has a rich tradition in OVC women’s basketball, coach Jim Davis is new to the league and got quite a welcome to Lantz Arena in Monday’s 89-79 loss to Eastern Illinois.
“Eastern Illinois is solid from top to bottom,” Davis said. “They have no weakness. How would you like to have a team that shoots 52 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3 and 76 percent from the free-throw line and score 79 points and can’t win.”
That was because Eastern countered with 51 percent field-goal shooting including 64 percent in the second half, 7-for-17 3-point shooting and 22 of 24 free throws.
“Well, you’re going to think this is stupid but I thought we defended pretty well,” Davis said. “Eastern is just a good team. Their two post players (Mariah King and Sabina Oroszova) were 3-for-4 from 3-point range. They’re just very talented.”
Jacksonville State is struggling through an 0-18 season that included the semester departure of Brianna Morrow.
“Of course, Bri was our leading scorer and rebounder,” Gamecocks coach Annette Watts said. “It kind of caught all of us off guard that she decided to withdraw from JSU. But our kids are resilient.”
The Gamecocks are finding positives where they can.
“I’ll tell you this much, we’re glad to be back home,” Watts said. “That trip to SIU Edwardsville and Eastern Illinois, that’s a brutal one for us from Alabama.”
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