Eastern Illinois coach Jay Spoonhour has worked out a good deal with Western Illinois since the two teams play each other twice a year for the last four seasons. The two teams battle for the Old Railsplitter ax, and it is currently Spoonhour's office since the Panthers won the first meeting this year - 68-66 in overtime at Lantz Arena on Nov. 17.
Today, the two teams meet for the second time this season when the Panthers travel to Macomb to face the Leathernecks. When the two teams played each other the first time, EIU played two games up until that point, and WIU played three games but only one against an NCAA Division I school.
Now each team has played nine games and have found out more about themselves. EIU (4-5) has had some good wins but also some tough losses. The same can be said about WIU, which knocked off Southeast Missouri State (4-5) but also lost to UT Martin.
The first game was a tight battle between the two schools with EIU coming back in the final minutes to force overtime and then getting the win. Spoonhour expects another tight battle between the two today.
"They are playing better. They beat SEMO and also beat (SIU-Edwardsville). The whole thing for any of us, everybody has new teams, some more than others, so learning how to win is a big deal," Spoonhour said. "Anytime you win one, it benefits your team. We have gained from the wins we had and (WIU) has gained from their wins. We are sitting in the same position and we feel like we can have a good team."
In the first game, EIU struggled offensively for a good portion of the game because WIU center Brandon Gilbeck contested basically every shot. He finished with nine blocks against EIU, but the Panthers were able to figure out a way to get some shots to fall late in the game. Gilbeck was the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year last season and leads the NCAA with 38 blocks this season.
He also had 19 rebounds and nine points against EIU.
"Gilbeck is leading the country in blocks, and a lot of it is because of us because he blocked everything against us," Spoonhour said. "I think late in the game, Rade (Kukobat) and Ben (Harvey) got the ball around the basket and were able to score. There is a fine line. You can't just set it up on a tee for him but you can't just steer clear of a guy. His ability to do that, it allows the rest of the team to stay out on shooters."
Kobe Webster leads WIU with 17.6 points per game. In the first game against EIU, Webster scored 18 points but he struggled to get a clean look off late in the game. His game-winning attempt in overtime was off and he was 0-of-7 from behind the arc. Webster was only 6-of-21 from the field in the first game but he was 6-of-9 from the free-throw line.
"Kobe is the guy that can put a bunch of points on the board if we are not careful," Spoonhour said. "They were without (Jeremiah) Usiosefe in that game and he is a good shooter and a good player, and he played well against us last year. They have a lot of good offensive pieces."
Josiah Wallace leads EIU with 14.8 points per game, and Rade Kukobat is averaging 11.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Ben Harvey, who scored some key points late in the first game and finished with 11 points, is averaging 10.1 points per game off the bench and Mack Smith is averaging 10.0 points per game.
The game tips in Macomb at 7 p.m. today.