MARTIN, Tenn. – The situation and the feeling were still fresh, still corporeal.
Eastern Illinois had been here – trailing UT-Martin, that is – just 21 days ago.
In that first meeting, the Panthers received a miraculous opening, burst through it and grabbed a win.
This time, EIU pecked away at a halftime deficit for about 10 minutes before poking its way through. Then, in the closing minutes, the Panthers rode Josiah Wallace’s hot hand.
EIU defeated UT-Martin 66-64 Thursday night, moving to 5-2 in the Ohio Valley and 12-8 overall. For the ninth time this year, the Panthers won when they faced a nine-point deficit at some point during the game.
Wallace poured in eight points in the final 2:17, the dagger coming on a 3-pointer with 12 seconds remaining. He finished with a team-high 17. Mack Smith added 14.
It was the second time in as many games an EIU guard took over and delivered a last-second win. Saturday, Shareef Smith scored his team’s final 10 points.
Cam Burrell blocked Derek Hawthorne Jr.’s put-back attempt with one second left. The entire UT-Martin bench stood up, raising its arms, incredulous that no foul was called.
UT-Martin was led by Kevin Little’s 16 points and Delfincko Bogan’s 12. The pair wasn’t enough, though, to deliver the Skyhawks their first OVC victory. They dropped to 0-7 and 5-13 overall.
Unlike some recent contests, EIU didn’t break out an extended run to come back or pull away. A few shorter ones did the job instead. They started immediately. UT-Martin opened the second half with four straight ugly possessions: a jumper that hit the side of the backboard, a contested low-percentage layup and two turnovers. By the time UT-Martin regrouped, EIU cut a 12-point hole in half.
A technical foul on Jailen Gill with 12:25 left for exchanging words with a referee after he was called for a foul going for a rebound opened it a little more. Wallace made both ensuing free throws, then a baseline jumper to pull EIU within two.
EIU took its first lead of the second half with 10:31 left, when JaQualis Matlock’s loose-ball steal led to Cam Burrell’s breakaway dunk.
The teams traded leads 15 times, nine of which came in the second half. Little and Bogan delivered important buckets. They were EIU’s largest problem and combined for six 3-pointers. Little made two that gave UT-Martin a lead. Bogan made on that gave UT-Martin a 63-58 lead with 3:26 left.
Then Wallace struck. He had to wait for his final heroics.
Shareef Smith headed to the foul line after a UT-Martin reach-in foul at midcourt, the game tied at 63 with 1:05 left. He missed the front end of the 1-and-1. UT-Martin, on its ensuing possession, sent Quinton Dove to the line after he was fouled grabbing an offensive rebound. He made one.
UT-Martin led 39-27 at halftime, powered by seven 3-pointers from six different players. EIU tried to keep up in the shootout (15 of its 27 first-half looks were 3s), but missed too many of its open opportunities. Mack Smith’s two first-half fouls further hindered that quest. He sat the final 11:25 of the half after starting 3-or-4 from deep.
Jay Spoonhour altered his starting lineup for the first time in six games, replacing Rade Kukobat with JaQualis Matlock.