EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Eastern Illinois women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant would’ve like to see his team picked higher in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason polls. The EIU women were picked to finish last in the OVC media poll and 11th in the OVC coaches/SID poll.
Bollant thinks the Panthers will be significantly better than last year when they went 3-26 overall and 2-16 in OVC play.
But based on previous results, the Panthers have been at the bottom of the league the last few years so Bollant knows the team has to prove it before they can be picked higher in the polls.
“I don’t know if the players get wrapped up (in the polls). Obviously, we are going to be better, we hope a lot better. Time will tell,” Bollant said. “We are certainly going to have a better product. We are a lot better. Our returners are better basketball players, for sure.”
Having Grace Lennox, who was an All-OVC Preseason selection, back this season should help. Lennox, a senior, played in eight games last year when she suffered a knee injury that kept her out the rest of the season. She was granted a medical redshirt.
She averaged 15.4 points per game in those eight contests and she averaged 16.3 points per game as a junior. She was named OVC First Team after her junior season.
Lennox is five points away from joining the 1,000-point club.
“She’s doing really well on the court and the good thing is there are a lot more pieces on the court with her,” Bollant said. “Even in the non-conference, you are going to see Grace do more and maybe not have as much on her shoulders because other kids are going to make plays as well.”
Lennox’s injury forced two freshmen to play more minutes last season - Taylor Steele and Karle Pace. Steele averaged 10.1 points per game and she hit 52 three-pointers. Pace averaged 8.1 points per game.
Bollant said the added minutes both players were forced to play last year helped both of them develop faster.
“Karle and Taylor are so much better now than they were at this time last year,” Bollant said. “They weren’t ready to be thrown into the fire but they handled it well with the ups and downs. It made them better basketball players for sure.”
Bollant will be adding a freshman to the backcourt mix as well with Kira Arthoffer, who has impressed him throughout the first few weeks of practice.
“She will be a big impact player as a freshman. She has been really consistent and will be the first guard off the bench and will play a lot of minutes,” Bollant said. “She’s a really good defender as a freshman. She was a state champion in track and is a big-time athlete. She competes really hard.”
Bollant feels like he has a quality backcourt. Now he needs the frontcourt to develop. Last year Bollant thought the team needed to be tougher inside and he added a few pieces. Junior forward Jennifer Nehls, sophomore Grace McRae and senior forwards Jalisha Smith and Halle Stull all return. Bollant added graduate transfer Damonique Miller, junior college transfer Claudia Stan and freshman Abby Wahl.
Bollant feels that unit will take a step forward this season.
“We are playing against ourselves so it’s a little hard to tell but Jenn has been killing it on the boards and Grace McRae has had a really good offseason,” Bollant said. “Abby adds a good presence in the post. She’s 6-1 but she plays like she’s 6-2, 6-3 because she’s big and physical and she leads the team in what she’s benching. We are going to have more depth in the post and that was the question mark.
“Our guard play will be near the top of the league. If our post play can be better, it can be a pretty exciting year.”
With what Bollant has on his roster this year, he feels he, along with the rest of the team, will be making a return trip to Evansville for the OVC Tournament in March.
“That’s obviously the goal. We were hopeful that would happen last year and when Grace got hurt in December, those chances went out the window,” Bollant said. “We believe it will be different this year and time will tell. Hopefully, we will be playing in Evansville.”