Eastern Illinois men's basketball coach Jay Spoonhour thought the team let a win slip away against Tennessee State a couple of weeks ago at Lantz Arena. The Panthers had a chance to either take the lead or tie the game late, but they couldn't convert and had a couple of costly turnovers in the final couple of minutes. Tennessee State went on to win 69-65.
Because of that win, the Tigers have a one-game lead on EIU in the Ohio Valley Conference standings. While neither team is at the top of the OVC standings or has a .500 conference record, the one-game difference is playing a key role in the standings. TSU (9-11) has a 4-5 record, putting the Tigers in a two-way tie for sixth place with Southeast Missouri State, which isn't eligible for the OVC tournament due to an APR historic penalty.
EIU (7-13) is one game back at 3-6 and are in a three-way tie for eighth with UT Martin and SIU Edwardsville. Because SEMO is ineligible for the OVC Tournament, two of those three teams would get in currently, and Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State, both 2-7 in the OVC, would be left out.
The tiebreakers don't need to be used yet because every team still has nine OVC games left. Thursday's games officially marked the midway point of the conference season. But if EIU wants to feel better about its chances to get into the tournament, getting the win against TSU the second time around on Saturday could be key.
EIU travels to Nashville on Saturday to face the Tigers at 7:30 p.m.
The Panthers held the Tigers to 39.2 percent shooting, but EIU fouled too much, and the Tigers attempted 23 free throws. TSU made 21 of those attempts, which went a long way in allowing the Tigers to pull out a 4-point win. Christian Mekowulu had the most free-throw attempts and made all eight of his attempts.
"We've had games where we haven't fouled, this wasn't one of them," Spoonhour said. "Mekowulu can really shoot free throws. They were able to score from the foul line. We gotta stay away from that. Defensively, both of us are going to score a low number."
Mekowulu is second in the OVC in free throws attempted with 125. SEMO's Denzel Mahoney leads the OVC with 162 free throw attempts, and EIU held the sophomore to only six free throws in Saturday's loss to the Redhawks. Mekowulu is shooting 75.2 percent from the line, and TSU is shooting 73.6 percent from the line on the season, but the Tigers have improved to 78.6 percent from the line in OVC play. Mekowulu is 50-of-61 (82 percent) from the free-throw line in nine OVC games.
Tennessee State is second-to-last in the OVC with only 67.4 points per game, which ranks right ahead of EIU with 66.3 points per game. The Tigers are also third-to-last in OVC in field goal percentage at 42.3 percent, ahead of EIU's 41.3 percent. But the Tigers have picked up the scoring pace lately. In the last six games, TSU has scored above its average in five of those games and has scored 70 or more points in four of those games. TSU was held to 57 points in a loss to Murray State last Saturday.
The Tigers are coming off its third-best scoring output of the season in an 85-57 win over SIUE on Thursday. TSU scored 86 points in an overtime loss to Lipscomb, and they scored 92 points against Reinhardt in the second game of the season.
Delano Spencer is averaging 15.0 points per game, and Mekowulu is averaging 12.8 points per game, but the Tigers have lacked a third scorer for part of the season, which has led to a lower scoring output this season. But in the last few games, Darreon Reddick has stepped up.
Reddick is averaging 7.7 points per game but is scoring 10.3 points per game in 10 OVC games. Against EIU, Reddick hit three 3-pointers and scored 12 points. He hit three 3-pointers and had 11 points against SIUE Thursday, 12 points and three 3-pointers in a win over Austin Peay, 10 points in a loss to SIUE a couple of weeks ago and 17 points in an overtime loss to Tennessee Tech. TSU has scored 69 or more points in all of those games.
In the loss to Murray State when the Tigers only scored 57 points, Reddick was held to 6 points.
"That's the deal for every team. We had our struggle, and then Mack Smith made shots," Spoonhour said. "Typically with every team, you have to have that third guy. For them, they have capable guys, and when you have a guy like Reddick making them, it helps."
Montell Goodwin leads EIU with 14.3 points per game, and Jajuan Starks is averaging 11.5 points per game. Mack Smith is averaging 8.4 points per game this season but is averaging 10.1 points per game in OVC play.
EIU was held to 37.7 percent from the field in the first meeting, and TSU caused 22 turnovers. The Tigers lead the OVC with 8.0 steals per game.
"Offensively, they sped us up, trapped us and we didn't handle it well," Spoonhour said. "But we are better at it now. They are good at making you make hurried plays. We gotta attack without being sped up."