CHARLESTON – Eastern Illinois, all of a sudden, was staring down the barrel of another third-quarter calamity. This time, it was one the Panthers especially couldn’t compound with a lack of focus and let spiral into a loss.
Not if their aspirations of making the conference tournament are realistic, that is.
Murray State, a 6-8 team picked to finish last in the preseason Ohio Valley poll, had just erased a 10-point deficit to take a 51-50 lead. It was hardly as harmful as EIU’s last crisis in the third period – an unmistakable catastrophe on Jan. 10 in which Jacksonville State outscored the Panthers 31-4.
“You get a little tighter when you see them coming back,” EIU coach Matt Bollant said.
But it was still a problem, and one the Panthers needed to correct if at all serious in insisting they’re noticeably improved from a year ago. If that is indeed the case, they should be able to win home games against similarly skilled opponents.
Sure enough, EIU didn’t let the 15-4 Murray State run turn into an even more extended drought. Karle Pace picked up EIU’s briefly stagnant offense and scored her team’s next 6 points, each one answering a Murray State’s basket. First, she made an off-handed floater from about 8 feet out. Then, she attacked a hard closeout for an easy layup. Finally, she made two free throws after she was fouled on a layup attempt.
“Before, when I drove it, it was open,” Pace said. “So when I got it, just drive.”
Pace, who had a game-high 23 points, helped EIU end the third quarter tied at 56.
“We were looking around at who was going to make a play, and she did that in the third quarter.”
EIU opened the fourth quarter on a 9-3 run and put the game away, winning 75-67 with little stress in the final period. The Panthers’ superior guard play took over. Kira Arthofer had a steal and assisted on Grace Lennox’s tiebreaking 3-pointer. Pace broke another tie with a layup, Steele followed with one of her own and Lennox drew a foul.
But, Bollant said, something else showed up too.
“To win close games like that, you have to believe you can do it,” he said. “When we’re out there, we believe we’re going to get the job done.”
Pace echoed him: “We believe in each other.”
Bollant mentioned previous games where he noticed a similar heightened sense of confidence.
He recalled the Dec. 21 63-39 home win over Indiana State, and the Jan. 3 victory over UT-Martin. In the latter, EIU led the superior-skilled Skyhawks for 39 minutes, but with 5:30 remaining in the game, their lead shrank to 3 points.
Instead of scoreboard watching and growing tense, though, EIU scored 19 seconds later and soon regained a 10-point lead. The final minutes contained no suspense.
The key for EIU, now, is turning that belief into more wins against teams that possess talent level on par with its own and possible mixing in a couple surprises. For as disastrous as the third quarter at Jacksonville State was, beating the Gamecocks on the road is quite a challenge for a team that won three games a year ago and, when healthy, uses a largely similar rotation as it did in 2017-18. What’s less of a challenge, though, is holding onto substantial leads or preventing prolonged opponent runs.
“Sometimes when you think you can win and they make a run, you get a little bit tight,” Bollant said. “Overall I think we’ll be a good third-quarter team. Just keep playing basketball. I think (versus) Jacksonville State and probably today, we were looking at the scoreboard like, ‘Oh my gosh, this isn’t going well.’ Just have to keep playing.”