CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Grace McRae could only watch from Eastern Illinois’ bench in sweat pants and a pullover three weeks ago.
The sophomore forward looked on as Austin Peay eviscerated her team’s 2-1-2 zone defense for 20 minutes and transform a one-point halftime lead into a 13-point victory.
“Definitely frustrating,” McRae said. “It just kept happening.”
In a Saturday rematch, though, Austin Peay walked off its home court painfully aware of her impact.
McRae’s 16 points, eight rebounds and sturdy defense helped EIU stake a 28-16 halftime lead and keep piling on points until Austin Peay’s momentary surge in the final two minutes. The Panthers earned a needed victory and defeated Austin Peay 67-57, ending a streak of 28 straight road losses. They led for the final 33 minutes and never allowed the Governors to go on any kind of extended run. They improved their record to 10-13 and 4-8 in the Ohio Valley.
“We challenged our posts and said to look at our top scorers Thursday: it’s guard, guard, guard,” EIU coach Matt Bollant said. “Today, we had three post players in double-figures, which was awesome.”
The dagger came when Grace Lennox chucked a 60-foot inbound pass to McRae, who caught it around the opposite 3-point line and made an easy layup. It gave EIU a 62-55 lead and answered Maggie Knowles’ 3-pointer on the previous possession.
EIU saw Austin Peay’s sporadic full-court pressure and fought its way through it, finding a couple of uncontested layups along the way. The Panthers took advantage of a few favorable switches and missed assignments.
Austin Peay, meanwhile, could not crack either EIU’s man-to-man look or its zone, dubbed “buzz.” The Governors were forced into uncomfortable shots, made four of their 19 first-half field goal attempts and committed 13 turnovers. They shot 37 percent overall. EIU guard Karle Pace, playing in her hometown, came away with four steals.
“We finally played hard in our buzz and did what we needed to do,” McRae said. “Last time, they ran against the buzz and we just couldn’t stop it. This time, we slowed what they were doing.”
EIU pushed its lead to 16 on Carmen Tellez’s 3-pointer with 4:32 left in the third quarter. It prompted Austin Peay coach David Midlick to call a timeout and capped three straight scores for EIU, a run that began when McRae found herself open in the left corner and made just her sixth 3-pointer of the season.
“I’m definitely getting more confident in my shot than I have been in the past from the coaches being on my back telling me to shoot it,” McRae said. “I’ve never really been told that in my life.”
The margin stayed right about there for the rest of the quarter. Austin Peay sliced it to 13 three separate times after Tellez’s 3, but EIU answered each basket. The Panthers committed three straight turnovers early in the fourth quarter as their lead trimmed to 50-39. Tellez, though, lobbed a half-court pass to Lennox to blow right through the press for a layup. Lennox drew a foul on it and made the ensuing free throw.
Gabby Gregory made a 3-pointer with 5:04 to bring Austin Peay within eight. Pace, in turn, jump-stopped and shook a defender for layup less than a minute later to put EIU back up by 11.
EIU played without Kira Arthofer, who watched from the bench wearing a walking boot. Jordyn Hughes, who had logged just 22 scoreless minutes since Jan. 10, came in as part of an EIU first-quarter substitution in Arthofer’s usual spot and saw two minutes, but didn’t enter again.
One small storm cloud descended over the win when Pace needed to be helped off the court with 15 seconds left. Brandi Ferby’s arm knocked her to the ground after she intercepted an inbound pass that she and Ferby were vying to catch.
Gregory led Austin Peay with 11 points. The Governors are now 11-12 and 6-6 in the OVC.