When Cleve Wright arrived at Eastern Illinois as an assistant for head coach Matt Bollant, he had an idea of putting together a women's basketball tournament that involved the four Illinois directional schools - EIU, Western Illinois, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. It didn't take long for the tournament to come together.
This weekend, the EIU women's basketball team travels to Carbondale for a couple of games in the inaugural Compass Tournament. The tournament will rotate among the four schools, starting with Southern Illinois this season. In two years, EIU will host the tournament.
Today, the Panthers play their first game of the tournament against Western Illinois at 4:30 p.m. Then on Saturday, EIU plays Southern Illinois at 3:30 p.m. The Panthers already had NIU on the schedule for a home-and-home. The Panthers hosted NIU last year and travel to DeKalb on Dec. 18.
The tournament gives EIU the chance to see how they match up against the four programs. Last year the Panthers were clearly behind the other three programs since EIU was only 3-26. WIU went 22-9, NIU went 15-15 and SIU was 17-14.
This season the Panthers seemed to be closing the gap a bit. EIU has already matched last season's win total with a 3-3 record and has as many wins as WIU and SIU. The Leathernecks are 3-6 and the Salukis are 3-4. NIU is 4-3.
"I think it's a good and coach Wright pushed to make it happen. Those four were ahead of us and we are hoping to make up ground and see where we are at," Bollant said. "It will be good to play against good teams in the state and the host school pays for the hotels for the teams so we get two good games at a low cost, which is good. When we decided to do this, all three of those programs were in front of us. We've made up some ground and we will find out how much ground (today)."
The Leathernecks are coming off a 14-point loss to Bradley in their last game. Olivia Kaufmann leads the team with 14.4 points per game, Taylor Higginbotham is averaging 12.4 ppg and Annabel Graettinger is averaging 11.1 ppg.
SIU is led by Nicole Martin, who is averaging 16.3 ppg and 5.9 rebounds per game. Mackenzie Silvey adds 14.4 ppg and Abby Brockmeyer is averaging 12.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game.
The Panthers are coming off back-to-back close road losses to Bradley and Valparaiso. EIU had the chance to tie the game in the final minutes of each game and lost the two games by a combined five points.
While Bollant is happy the team is in the game late, unlike a number of road games last season, he's ready for the team to take the next step and to pick up a big road win or two this weekend.
"We just have to keep getting in the water. Keep fighting and keep doing the things that can make us be successful. Just getting one will help us believe we can do it," Bollant said. "We are obviously better than last year and now we have to get ourselves to believe it. It's been fun that we are taking the next step and are competing with teams that blew us out last year. This is a great opportunity to play back-to-back games and I think this will be fun."
Taylor Steele and Karle Pace both lead EIU with 13.8 points per game each.
Defensively, the team has been solid for the last three games. EIU hasn't allowed 70 points in their last three games against NCAA Division I opponents. Bradley scored the most points with 67. Teams are only shooting 39.2 percent against EIU.
"We have been significantly better defensively. We are playing well in man and getting turnovers in the buzz defense. Buckets are tougher to come by against us," Bollant said. "We are guarding the three-point line well but Western can really shoot it, so we have to continue to guard it well. We are rebounding better and that stuff is showing."
EIU is averaging 39.7 rebounds per game and has a +0.3 edge on rebounding margin this season. Jennifer Nehls leads EIU with 6.8 rebounds per game.