CHARLESTON — Kashawn Charles strolled down a Lantz Arena hallway, heading toward what, for him, was uncharted territory.
A media relations staffer instructed him to go into a classroom that, on game days, morphs into a press conference room. He entered, noticed a foldout table with two chairs facing a fleet of desks, pointed downward at it and quietly asked, “Sit here?”
For someone still unfamiliar with the postgame media availability process, Charles offered wisdom befitting a veteran press room denizen. He dissected a key factor in EIU’s 84-78 loss to Morehead State in which the Panthers held an early 16-4 lead, and later a nine-point second-half advantage, but gave up too many second-half baskets and threw away the ball in a couple of important late-game spots. The Panthers also held a double-digit first-half lead in each of the last two losses.
“You can get a sense of security,” he said. “We should never be secure about whatever we’re doing. We want to go out there and bash anyone we’re playing. When we get up 10 or 11, we should want to keep our foot on their necks. Sometimes when we do get up 10 or 11, that’s where we start to have those dry spells.”
The last line is the other common thread between Saturday and last weekend’s loss at Southeast Missouri State. This is the one he spent a bit more time illuminating. In both, EIU stalled and committed untimely turnovers while trying to protect a slim advantage. After Shareef Smith’s free throw gave EIU a 69-67 lead with 2:02 left, EIU had two straight turnovers.
“We’d get something going good with our offense, then would try to break away from it, do our own thing and that brings them back into the game,” Charles said.
He had no idea he foreshadowed his coach’s observations.
“Guys want to go make a play to change the flow of the game,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. “And that doesn’t work out very well.”
Those individual moments are the boogeyman that has jumped out from under the bed at times this season and in the final moments of EIU’s last two losses.
EIU’s offense is an intricate motion scheme with loads of cutting and screening that Spoonhour has employed for most of his career. This year’s team has eight newcomers playing together for the first time. Spoonhour has repeatedly said becoming fully comfortable in the motion offense can take more than one season. If that’s indeed the case, chalk up the parts of Saturday’s game where the offense lulled or committed turnovers to the continued learning.
As they've learned before, EIU isn’t blessed with spectacular individual scorers or athletes. The pieces on its roster work best together when they can run actions and get more players to touch the ball before a shot. That’s the case with most teams, but EIU has a bit less margin for error during lulls because it’s more of a shooting team that can’t consistently unleash an unstoppable individual force.
“When we have to go get a basket, more guys have to touch the ball just because we don’t have a guy who you can just post up and score it,” Spoonhour said. “We don’t have someone that can come off a ball screen and go get a bucket, necessarily. For a lot of our stuff, a lot of guys have to touch the ball. The reason we have lulls, or you get a lead and give it back, is because we require multiple actions, multiple guys running motion in order to get something good.”
As Saturday showed, there is more learning left to do.
“We just have to make the plays that are there," Charles said. "That’s not even to say we’re doing it on purpose. As a player, you feel like if we haven’t scored in a while, you want to go make a play and get a basket. It’s not a testament to anybody wanting to do their own thing. It’s just that we have to realize we have to slow down and run what we run.”
That task becomes immeasurably harder when, at the other end, an elusive and speedy guard is carrying his team and therein nettling the same guys when they’re on defense.
Like, say, Jordan Walker.
Beginning with 11:44 remaining in the game, Walker accounted for 16 of Morehead State’s next 22 points, scoring 13 of them himself. He started his coup with a tying 3-pointer. It ended with him assisting on James Baker’s 3-pointer that gave the Eagles a 72-69 lead with 1:02 left. He finished with a career-high 30 points.
“He was getting good drives and having trouble finishing and missing short in the first half, so we just told him keep doing what you’re doing and stay aggressive,” Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin said.
Only two of his six baskets were assisted. This was one player answering every opponent score and doing it all by himself…which is exactly the opposite of what Spoonhour has EIU try to do. When EIU’s offense works, as it has quite often, it’s pretty to watch and as impressive as a one-man takeover.
“It’s a really hard way to play,” Spradlin said. “A lot of coaches would certainly like to play that way.”
Overall, the offense is hardly the scapegoat for Saturday’s result. Rather, a team with more perimeter speed and a couple of skilled ball handlers drove into the lane, found open shots and chased down offensive rebounds. Walker, all 6 feet of him, had three offensive boards himself.
All told, EIU is still alone in fifth place in the Ohio Valley and a full game ahead of Morehead State in the standings despite it. And it’s hard to be upset with the offense when EIU shot 52.5 percent from the floor and went 10-for-20 from 3-point range. The Panthers aren’t a turnover-prone team (those occur on 18.7 percent of their possessions) and shoot 36 percent on 3-pointers.
“Motion takes years sometimes, man,” Spoonhour said. “I’m happy with how they’re doing with it.”