Matt Bollant spent part of his postgame news conference Thursday discussing the heightened sense of belief he has observed from his players. He cited it as a reason Eastern Illinois responded with a fourth-quarter surge to defeat Murray State after letting a 10-point lead slip away in the third quarter.
The win gave EIU a head-to-head victory over the Racers, who are among the group of teams that figure to battle EIU the rest of the year for a spot in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. Bollant acknowledged the significance that result could have on standings and tiebreakers at the end of the season. The win guarantees EIU will at worst tie Murray State in the season series.
“Big step, obviously,” he said.
EIU has taken plenty of those already – it has doubled its total wins and conference wins from last year’s 3-26 season. But if the Panthers are serious about taking more steps and their ability to make the conference tournament, they will have to keep notching home wins over the teams that will likely jockey with them in the standings for the next six weeks. EIU (8-8, 2-3 OVC) has another opportunity to pick one up Saturday. Austin Peay, also off to a 2-3 start in conference play, figures to be right in the mix for one of the final tournament spots and was picked in the preseason to finish ninth, two spots ahead of EIU.
The easiest way for EIU to help itself in the tournament chase is, of course, to just pick up wins. But given the ability to grab one while simultaneously handing a close competitor a loss and helping head-to-head record, these games have a little more importance. Bollant recognizes that.
“You look back, on your home court, you have to find a way to get it done against these teams if you want to be playing in the conference tournament,” Bollant said.
Once again, EIU will be short-handed while two of its starters sit due to injury – forwards Grace McRae (back) and Jennifer Nehls (foot) are out Saturday. Their absence was no problem Thursday, thanks to freshman forward Abby Wahl, who Bollant called the team’s most improved player since summer workouts.
Wahl, starting at the five spot, made Murray State center Evelyn Adebayo toil for her customary double-double and help hold her six points below her scoring average. Adebayo made just two field goals and had seven turnovers. Murray State turned the ball over four other times trying to pass it to her in the post. All told, it’s an encouraging sign for EIU’s ability to defeat the teams it needs to defeat while McRae and Nehls are out.
“She’s been great the last three games – to be able to score some, rebound and the biggest thing for us is being able to defend on the block and keep people from getting layups,” Bollant said of Wahl. “She plays within herself and doesn’t try to do too much.”