CHARLESTON — At times against Valparaiso on Monday, the Eastern Illinois women's basketball team looked like a team without its starting point guard and leading scorer because they are. Without Grace Lennox, who is out with a knee injury, the Panthers turned the ball over 18 times and were down by 17 points to Valparaiso early in the fourth quarter.
But even without Lennox, who EIU women's coach Matt Bollant said is out for the short term now instead of potentially the season, the Panthers stayed with Valparaiso. Each time the Panthers found themselves trailing by double-digits to the Crusaders, they battled back, even when they were down by 17 points.
EIU made it an eight-point game with 1:15 left, six points with under a minute left and five points with 10 seconds left. Valparaiso put the game out of reach with a couple of free throws in the final seconds as EIU's comeback fell just a bit short in a 76-67 loss to the Crusaders on Monday during the annual Kids Day game at Lantz Arena.
"I thought they fought really hard. I told them I can live with the end results if they fight and give their best," Bollant said. "Obviously there's things we can learn and get better at. I was proud of the team. They played with a lot of energy and a lot of fight. I appreciate all of the kids here. With 2,200 fans here, they saw our kids fight and saw the game played it's suppose to be played."
EIU fell to 1-8 in the loss, the sixth straight defeat for the Panthers. Valparaiso improved to 6-4.
Sophomore Danielle Berry got the start at the point and had the best game of her career. Filling in for Lennox, she finished with a career-high 13 points and four assists to go along with seven rebounds and two steals. Freshman guard Taylor Steele, who entered the starting lineup for the first time in her career, scored a career-high 12 points and grabbed a career-high five rebounds.
"I thought Dani played a whale of a game at the point. For her first game starting there, she just played with a lot of energy and a lot of heart," Bollant said. "I thought Taylor played probably her best game, too. They play hard, they are good kids and value the right things. Dani plays so hard that you know good things are going to happen because she plays with good energy."
The team did have 18 turnovers in the first game without Lennox and every player but one, Halle Stull, had at least one turnover. Jennifer Nehls led EIU with six turnovers.
"I thought Jenn got sped up. She's a good passer, but she plays so hard, she has to get herself to slow down," Bollant said. "She's a very good passer, but you have to make the easy pass and to slow down at times. Certainly the six turnovers out of her were disappointing."
The first two possessions without Lennox were shaky. EIU missed a three and then turned the ball over. EIU’s defense helped out, though, as the Panthers forced back-to-back turnovers. EIU then got back-to-back 3-pointers from Steele and Berry for a 6-0 lead.
EIU went up 8-2 when a couple of three’s by Valpo tied the game at 8-8 with 6 minutes left in the first quarter. The two teams traded points and the game was tied at 16 when Valpo hit two free throws and got a three from Caitlin Morrison to go up 21-16 at the end of the first quarter.
Valpo went up 31-20 with 4:40 left in the first half and the Panthers held the Crusaders scoreless for the rest of the second quarter. But EIU couldn’t take advantage as the Panthers only hit 4-of-15 shots (26.7 percent) in the quarter and turned the ball over six times as Valpo went into halftime with a 31-24 lead.
"In the second quarter especially, we talk so much in practice that we don't want to make one pass and shoot it, and we probably five to eight possessions with one pass and a shot," Bollant said. "That is not at all what we are trying to do. I think they got excited and when you get excited, you feel like you can make shots. The second quarter, the amount of possessions where we didn't make enough passes was poor."
Carmen Tellez, who led EIU with 16 points, hit back-to-back 3-pointers to start the third quarter to get EIU within one at 31-30 when Valpo went on a 6-0 run to go back up 37-30.
The Panthers cut the lead to three points a couple of times in the third, but a 10-5 run to end the quarter gave Valpo a 56-47 advantage. Valpo went on an 8-0 run to start the fourth quarter to go up 64-47. Dani Franklin led Valparaiso with 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting.
"We didn't find (Franklin). She is way too good of a player to get 17 shots," Bollant said. "She got some corner threes and we missed her a couple of times inside. Giving up 45 points in the second half wasn't very good."
EIU slowly cut into the lead and got it down to 71-65 with 26 seconds left. Valparaiso's Nicole Konieczny only hit one of the two free throws and Steele came back with two free throws on the other end to make it a five-point game with 10 seconds left.
"I thought we didn't give up, we didn't get wrapped up in the score," Bollant said. "We just kept fighting and made a lot of good plays down the stretch."
This time Konieczny made two free throws to seal the game and Valparaiso went on to win 76-67.