CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — About half an hour after his team’s stirring Saturday afternoon win, Rick Ray stood at one of the three-point lines on the Show Me Center court, jacket off, tie slightly loosened, watching as his sons dribbled around near him. He was reminded of the importance of the previous two-plus hours to his team.
“We were reeling,” he said, raising his eyebrows and nodding his head once. “Needed that.”
He was referring to Southeast Missouri State’s triple-overtime loss to SIU-Edwardsville two days prior. Had the Redhawks won, it would have given them their second Ohio Valley victory and an early tiebreaker over SIUE, a team it figures to battle for the final conference tournament spot.
Saturday, SEMO avenged it. After 15 minutes looking like a door blown off its hinges, SEMO roared back from a 14-point hole to hand Eastern Illinois a 64-59 loss.
“It was our urgency understanding what’s at play here,” Ray said a few minutes earlier at a dais in the Show Me Center press room.
It certainly showed. That tenacity is, more or less, what doomed Eastern Illinois. A team inferior in record and skill to the Panthers slammed on the breaks right at the edge of the abyss of a 1-7 start to OVC play. With a renewed resolve, SEMO defenders glued themselves to the hips of EIU players, pressured the ball, defended without fouling, sprinted to closeouts and left EIU retreating to the locker room wondering what had just happened.
“I don’t know that we settled for jumpers, but that was all we ended up getting for the last six to eight minutes,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. “We didn’t have very many good possessions, but I think that was because of their defense.”
EIU made zero 3-pointers in the second half and shot two free throws all game. Those came on a hook-and-hold Flagrant 1 called on SEMO guard Jonathan Dalton, meaning EIU did not draw a shooting foul all game. Unable to get by defenders, create space with screens or make jump shots, EIU scored just 16 points in the final 11:32. There were simply few plays to be made or shots to be found.
Shareef Smith, standing outside the locker room, needed a few seconds to come up with the right word. He settled on “frustrating.”
All told, the loss was a backhanded slap with the message that EIU, despite its recent penchant for clutch shots and comebacks, is not yet above losing these types of games. EIU, which owns nine wins this season in games where it trailed by at least nine points, was wounded by its own method after building its early lead. The game was a reminder to the Panthers that a bottom-third team in the standings with a sense of perseverance can spring up and trap them, and that the tough shots to end games won’t always fall. Saturday, SEMO didn’t even let EIU take the shots. It was a lesson that grabbing wins in the final minute is a fickle strategy impossible to execute for an entire season.
“We need to put teams away, and we let them back in the game,” Smith said.
Moreover, SEMO’s sudden blitz brought back a bit more uncertainty around the answer to a question that has lingered in the background of EIU’s 12-9 record and 5-3 conference mark. Are those records a house of cards built on narrow comeback wins over bad teams (Austin Peay, of course, being the patent exception), or a sign of a team full of newcomers gelling together and having poise late in games? It’s hard to knock a record, but also a challenge to be an ardent supporter of its sustainability if it is built in the way the Panthers have built it.
This is the dilemma faced when evaluating EIU’s body of work. Nine comebacks are enough to believe it is not a fluke and lean toward the latter conclusion. But a loss in which EIU stakes itself a rare big lead and squanders it restocks a bit more doubt. The Panthers did the same thing in a December loss at Chicago State, which has not beaten another Division I team this season.
EIU, even after finding itself in another suspenseful final minute, had the chance to still escape with a win. Tied at 59 with a minute left, Rade Kukobat threw away a pass intended for Smith in the paint. On the ensuing defensive possession, Ray designed an isolation play for Ledarrius Brewer. He lifted up the bottom of EIU’s defense use two screens, giving Brewer an easy dunk if he could get past Mack Smith. He did.
EIU, in response, turned the ball over again when Kukobat set a moving screen. On its last chance, Dalton swiped the ball from Shareef Smith in the lane before Smith could even unload a shot.
Three swifts kicks in the rear. Game over.
“When you win close games, you maximize possessions at the end of the game and just make good plays,” Spoonhour said. “We were OK for a while, and then we made three turnovers at the end. You’re not going to win if you give the ball away.”
As EIU found out, that’ll be the case no matter the conference opponent’s place in the standings or level of talent if the Panthers keep leaving games up for grabs.