EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Coming into the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, Eastern Illinois coach Jay Spoonhour said he just wanted his players to do what they’ve been doing over the past six to seven games.
That’s hold onto the ball, rebound and take smart shots. He didn’t want anyone doing anything special by doing something they haven’t done all season.
His players listened and stuck to their games, which led to some key performances in the first round game against Tennessee State on Wednesday at the Ford Center.
Devantae’ Price, who had 30 rebounds coming into the game, tied a career-high with seven rebounds and he had a career-high three assists. Montell Goodwin and Mack Smith combined for five 3-pointers, four in the second half. Ray Crossland finished with 11 points and seven rebounds and held Delano Spencer in check for most of the game. EIU limited Christian Mekowulu to 2 second-half points.
All of those performances were needed because for the third time this season, the game between EIU and TSU came down to the final minute. Those performances helped EIU build a double-digit lead, and even though the ending wasn’t smooth, the Panthers held on for a 73-71 win over TSU to advance to the OVC quarterfinals Thursday against Austin Peay at 8:30 p.m. at the Ford Center.
Spoonhour thought the team stayed within itself and made key plays throughout the game because of it.
“I thought so and I thought so especially defensively, also,” Spoonhour said. “We are always going to have rough, ugly-looking games, but I thought we were smart about the way we guarded.”
The loss was frustrating for TSU coach Dana Ford because he thought his players made big shots in big moments. After only hitting one 3-pointer in the first half, the Tigers hit eight in the second. Armani Chaney had three 3-pointers and Spencer hit a 3 late to keep TSU in the game.
But EIU usually had an answer. The biggest response was with 1:04 remaining. Stokley Chaffee Jr. hit a 3 from the corner to pull TSU within 3 points.
With the shot clock winding down, Smith banked in a 3-pointer to put EIU back up 68-62.
“You have to give them credit,” Ford said. “They were able to answer all of our challenges. I was proud of our guys for challenging.”
Smith’s only a freshman, but he’s already earned a reputation for those kind of shots.
“He’s done it all year. It’s a back-breaker for them because they had a good defensive possession going,” Spoonhour said. “Those kind of plays were backbreakers.”
TSU didn’t go away, though. Spencer scored nine of his 17 points in the final minute of the game to chip away. But his 3-pointer at the buzzer was well defended and off to the left as EIU held on for the win.
Ford wanted the ball in Spencer’s hands in the final minute, and he thought Crossland did a good job on Spencer throughout the game.
“Heck, we don’t want it in anyone else’s hands. He’s our best shooter. I think he’s an all-league guard, I don’t know why I wouldn’t want it in his hand at the end,” Ford said. “I tip my hat to Crossland. He guarded Delano Spencer the way we like to guard. He showed his hands and was there on every catch. That’s how you win, and he did a good job. Obviously Delano has the respect of their coaching staff to guard him that way.”
EIU also won the game because the Panthers were able to limit Mekowulu in the second half.
Mekowulu scored 27 points in the last meeting against EIU and was 19-of-23 from the line against the Panthers this season.
He finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, but only had 2 points in the second half and didn’t make a trip to the free-throw line after halftime. He only had one offensive rebound in the game.
“(Diallo) and (Dama) worked hard and they did a good job. They really, really tried hard and worked hard, and I thought our guards did well,” Spoonhour said. “(Goodwin) did a good job helping and Price got in there. It’s never one guy doing something. I thought Ray was really good defensively because Spencer is a really good player, and a lot of his baskets didn’t come with Ray guarding him.”
After Crossland’s seven rebounds, Price, who is averaging 1.7 rebounds per game, tied a career-high with seven boards.
“I like to rebound, so try to get down there as much as possible,” Price said. “I just try and get the position I can to get the rebound.”
EIU took an 11-5 lead in the first half when TSU came back to tie the game at 11. EIU went on a 7-0 run to go up 20-13 and went into halftime up 24-22.
TSU took a 29-28 lead early in the second half, but it was short-lived as Jajuan Starks hit two free throws and a 3-pointer to put EIU back up 33-29 with 14:29 left. TSU never tied the game again.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Crossland and Smith put EIU up 55-44 with 7:36 left in the game. TSU cut the lead to 55-48 with 6:02 left when Ford was called for a technical foul.
Goodwin, who finished with 20 points, made both free throws, but TSU started to pick up the pace.
“I guess I yelled (at the official) and he didn’t like that. He has every right to T me up, which he did,” Ford said. “After that is when we made our run. Maybe that was the best thing we did tonight.”
TSU cut the lead down to 3 when Smith, who scored 15 points, hit his 3-pointer for a 68-62 lead. EIU was up 73-66 when Spencer hit a 3.
The Panthers missed their next four free throws and Spencer made a layup, but he missed the potential game-winning 3 as EIU advanced with a 73-71 win.