MURRAY, Ky. – An abbreviated and succinct Jay Spoonhour spoke in absolutes in an empty CFSB Center hallway.
“I have nothing at all,” he said, pausing for a moment, “wrong with the way we played. I thought we did an outstanding job.”
He praised his team’s rebounding, their toughness and the work they did to find quality shots for much of the game. At one point, he interrupted himself to make sure his decree was being recorded. He lauded their poise, and with that, sped off into the locker room.
The 38-second monologue left no doubt he views Eastern Illinois’ 11-point loss at Murray State Thursday night as, well, no ordinary loss or anything to retreat from. Minimal deduction is required to appreciate that his point brings ample validity.
EIU survived Murray State’s opening-round blitz, picked itself up from off the mat and forced the Racers to labor for an 86-75 win. The Panthers made 12 3-pointers, shot 41 percent from deep and held a 71-64 lead with 9:04 left in the game. Earlier, they brought a hush over all 5,111 people packed into one of the Ohio Valley’s most intimidating edifices with a 17-0 run that stopped their bad momentum cold and blew Murray State’s ideas of a wire-to-wire blowout into smithereens.
At the end of the night, though, subdued EIU players trickled out of their locker room and headed for their bus. Josiah Wallace stopped and spoke for them all.
“We came up short, but it was a good confidence booster,” Wallace said. “This is a hard place to play on the road. We played well as a team together. That was some of the best offense we’ve ran all year.”
Evident in it was a sense of determination and belief among themselves. Wallace said they felt they needed to prove to themselves they could push Murray State, a team with superior athleticism and skill at just about every position that will have the most explosive player on the court in every one of its OVC games (and most of its other ones, too). EIU left Murray having passed that self-issued test and even held Ja Morant to 7-for-19 shooting. After making his first four, Morant was 3-for-15 and scored once in the first 18 minutes of the second half.
“I mean, they came to our place and basically just kicked our butts,” Wallace said. “We didn’t want them to do that again.”
To keep pace, as Spoonhour noted earlier in the week, EIU needed to shoot 3s at a high percentage and avoid the offensive lulls that derive from stagnant sets that involve few passes, screens or cuts. EIU, for much of the game, carved up the nation’s No. 5 3-point percentage defense. Even in the last nine minutes, when everything started hitting rims instead of nets, the quality of the shots taken did not horribly deteriorate.
Spoonhour went to a five-out lineup that gave Murray State fits and provided EIU with a real chance at notching a season-defining win. It opened up back-cuts for layups and rhythm 3-pointers. JaQualis Matlock, EIU’s most reliable rebounder and a usually paint scorer when he does choose to attack, connected for a pair of first-half 3s when he saw Murray State’s five was stationed on the surface of the moon.
“Really gave us problems,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said.
EIU appeared stocked with belief that it could pull the upset when Ben Harvey swiped the ball from Darnell Cowart at the top of the key and cruised for a dunk that gave the Panthers that 71-64 advantage. Rade Kukobat greeted him with a hearty “Let’s go!”
In the end, the Racers closed the gap and grabbed the win when McMahon scrapped his two-forward lineup and played four guards. He usually plays two of Cowart, KJ Williams and Brion Sanchious at the same time.
With 9:09 left, though, and EIU threatening to pull away, McMahon pulled Williams and brought freshman wing Tevin Brown back from a brief rest. With either Cowart or Williams operating as the lone big alongside Brown, Morant, Shaq Buchanan and reserve guard Brion Whitley, Murray State closed the game on a 22-4 run.
“We were a lot tougher defensively the last nine minutes of the game,” McMahon said.
Morant fueled it, first picking Wallace’s pocket and then assisting on Brown’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 6:50 left. Then the alternating pair of Cowart and Williams scored six straight. Cowart was particularly effective all night, finishing with 23 points and 12 rebounds.
All told, Murray State outscored EIU by 28 total points when combining the opening 5:45 and the last 9:04. The collective explosiveness on offense and athleticism on defense flexed its muscle and won out. In the 25 minutes between, though, EIU bested the Racers by 17.
“We executed the way we're supposed to, just didn’t make shots,” Wallace said. “A 22-4 run, it’s hard to look back on that, but we’ve just got to bounce back.”
They’ll try to Saturday against Austin Peay (4 p.m., ESPN+), one of the three 9-2 OVC teams. Three weeks ago, EIU pulled a similar stunt to Murray State’s when they erased a 14-point deficit with 10 minutes left to beat the Governors, 85-83. The Panthers know that’s a vivid memory Austin Peay will want to vanquish. They also know they’ll be ready for whatever is thrown their way after Thursday’s largely stirring effort that didn’t quite feel like a typical loss.
“We’re going to keep on rolling after this,” Wallace said.