CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Shareef Smith nearly lit the comeback wick once again.
The speedy 5-foot-10 guard saw Eastern Illinois down by double-digits in the second half to Austin Peay for the second time in three weeks and wedged his team back into the game.
This time, though, EIU couldn’t quite overthrow the Governors.
EIU lost to Austin Peay, 94-86, its third straight defeat, which slipped its record to 13-12 and 6-6 in the Ohio Valley. Austin Peay took 32 free throws and made 27 of them. The fouls came on drives, on rebounds, and in one case, on a 3-point shooter.
“We fouled them,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. “The whole game, we fouled them.”
The 94 points are the most the Panthers have allowed in their 12 conference games this year. They also totaled 20 assists and scored their most points in regulation since Dec. 4. They shot 52 percent from the field and reached 80 points against one of the conference’s trickiest defenses for the second time this year.
“Didn’t quite get enough done defensively,” Spoonhour said.
The Panthers operated with a five-out offense for most of the game, just as they did Thursday against Murray State. Aboubacar Diallo started the game at center, but didn’t play in the second half, his lingering foot injury bothering him. With Diallo out, EIU’s offense shifted to a perimeter-oriented attack.
Smith was EIU’s obvious catalyst from start to finish. He led EIU with 29 points and six assists. He shot 11-for-16 from the floor and 5-for-6 on 3-pointers.
“Him just being tough, taking it and going hard at the rim, that’s what you have to do,” Spoonhour said.
With EIU down 79-70, he canned two straight 3-pointers from the top of the key. He backpedaled after each, barely flinching or acknowledging the significance.
The three-point margin Smith created was as close as EIU came. Terry Taylor, Austin Peay’s own stimulator, ensured a repeat of EIU’s Jan. 19 comeback wouldn’t happen. He grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back, then drew a foul and made two free throws. Finally, he ended a two-minute Austin Peay field goal drought when he took Rade Kukobat off the dribble and hit a short floater to give his team an 89-83 lead with 1:37 left.
“They drove us,” Spoonhour said. “They posted it some and did a good job with that. But to start the second half, I didn’t like the way we looked defensively. We didn’t take them out of anything.”
Austin Peay (18-7, 10-2) never trailed in the second half, but EIU swatted away its first two attempts at turning a one-point game at halftime into a stress-free win.
Taylor and Zach Glotta sparked the Governors offense, which averaged 1.31 points per possession and shot 49 percent. Glotta scored 17 points and hit five 3-pointers, all of them in the first half. He fired away off screens, and in a couple instances, he caught a defender with a hand down.
“You know you have to get to him,” Spoonhour said. “We were just late a couple times.”
The Governors first separated with about 13 minutes left when they grabbed a 67-55 lead. Jabari McGhee feasted upon two one-on-one post touches and scored. Steve Harris, in one of his rare successful moments when matched up against Smith, drew a foul and hit two free throws. EIU rattled off seven straight, started by a Smith 3 and capped by a Smith layup, to slide right back to within five.
Mack Smith fouled Glotta on a 3-pointer, though, and Austin Peay grabbed another 12-point advantage with 9:35 to go. Shareef Smith raised his hand again. He scooted through for a layup, then assisted on a Ben Harvey one.
Taylor scored at all three levels and face frequent double-teams when he touched the ball in the paint. Those double-teams produced mixed results. He passed out of them to Glotta, who drilled a trio of 3s off passes from Taylor. Other times, the doubles forced Taylor to miss. Occasionally, he found himself one-on-one with JaQualis Matlock. Twice Matlock stood ground and deflected a pass intended for him. Matlock fouled out, though, when he bumped Taylor on a rebound with 2:26 remaining.
Taylor ended the game with 25 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, all team-highs.