CHARLESTON -- Piecing together four quarters of consistent basketball has been a struggle for the Eastern women's basketball team all season long. Once again on Thursday night at Lantz Arena, the team lost largely because of one quarter where the scales tipped against them.
The Panthers dropped its 12th straight game with a 70-63 loss to Murray State, the win clinched a playoff berth for the Racers.
It has been a recurring theme for Eastern all season. It will play three quarters of basketball keeping the score close or even leading, but will have one quarter that does them in. While there is no set quarter for this pattern, tonight it was the fourth quarter that sank Eastern.
At the end of the third quarter, Eastern and Murray State were tied 46-46, and although the Panthers played well offensively in the fourth quarter, defensively, not everything went their way and it hurt them down the stretch.
Murray State shot 54.5 percent in the fourth quarter and its leading scorer Ke'Shunan James scored six of her 15 total points as the Racers outscored the Panthers 24-17 in the final quarter.
Eastern head coach Matt Bollant gave a lot of credit to the Racers upperclassmen, including James, senior Bria Bethea (team-high 19 points) and senior forward Brianna Crane for stepping up down the stretch and making big plays for Murray State.
"There was a couple of offensive rebounds (in the fourth quarter) that really hurt us. (James) got a big and-one and I am not sure if we wore down a bit maybe, but just the not quite blocking out and we had a late double team on (Crane) that hurt us as well."
"I thought (James) was much better in that second half and made some plays," Bollant said.
The loss for Eastern was one that has mirrored in many ways the ones that came before it, it was another game where just one quarter made a difference and it was another game that freshmen led the Panthers in scoring.
For an eighth game in a row, freshman Karle Pace scored in double-digits, finishing with 15 points and freshman Taylor Steele finished with a game-high 20 points on 5-of-7 shooting from three-point range.
Bollant says these two freshmen might be carrying a bigger load offensively than any other freshmen in the country and he said tonight he was proud of his young guards.
"They played with a lot of courage and a lot of fight," Bollant said. "It's great to have freshmen stepping up and leading. It's hard to be a leader as a freshman, but (Pace and Steele) are doing a great job and have been our most consistent two players."
Eastern led at halftime 34-33 closing out the final 3:30 of the second quarter with an 11-6 run.
Outside of a five-minute stretch to start the game, when the Panthers were down by as much as 12-2 and allowed Murray State to take four shots before Eastern even put up one, the Panthers seemed to have an edge on Murray State.
Eastern freshman Taylor Steele and junior Carmen Tellez made two three-pointers late in the first quarter to end the Racers run and by the end of the quarter, Eastern trailed just 19-14 after closing on a 12-5 run.
The loss for Eastern drops them to 2-26 overall and 1-16 in the OVC.
For Murray State, it secures them a spot in the conference tournament next week and eliminates Eastern Kentucky from contention.
The Panthers season finale is Saturday at 1 p.m. against Southern Illinois Edwardsville in Lantz Arena.