CHARLESTON – Before they were Eastern Illinois teammates, Shareef Smith and JaQualis Matlock met on the court as adversaries twice.
Smith and Highland Community College played Matlock and Moberly Area C.C. twice last season, and each still remembers the meetings in detail. Moberly won both, the first a 13-point home victory.
“In the second half, we really took off,” Matlock said, grinning.
The second, though, a 93-90 Moberly win at Highland on Dec. 9, 2017, portended a bit of the unflashy-but-significant skill set he’s since paraded at EIU. Moberly had a one-possession lead when one of Matlock’s teammates missed a jumper with about five seconds to go. Matlock ensured Highland never had a chance to take a potential game-winner. He grabbed the offensive rebound and passed it away to a stronger foul shooter.
“I had to step up and do something to change the game,” Matlock recalled.
Now, 14 months later, he’s doing that with more consistency for EIU. He has occupied a steady spot in the rotation all year and earned his coaches’ trust long ago, but no week demonstrated his sudden significance better than this last one, when EIU defeated UT-Martin 66-64 and then squandered an early 14-point lead in a loss at Southeast Missouri State. In each, he scored in double figures and muscled down three offensive rebounds. He has three assists and three steals combined.
“I see that Moberly in him,” Smith said. “The way he played there, I see him starting to play that way now.”
Inside the program, Matlock is lauded as a persistent forward who maximizes his minutes and comes up with key non-scoring plays. He’s undersized, but can play as a small-ball five or at the four. He can defend both positions, switch screens and guard on the perimeter. He limits the impact that opposing forwards can have on the glass. At his best, he’s a Swiss Army knife who deploys all his blades in one game. Offense, more often that not, is his secondary weapon.
“He moves the ball and he doesn’t need to score to have value,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. “It’s nice if he can make a bucket, but he’s not judging his game on whether he got a basket. He tries to guard every time and he rebounds.”
A glance at Matlock’s numbers, though, suggests he’s just another guy. A 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward who mainly scores in the paint shouldn’t have a field goal percentage that could be confused with Ty Cobb’s batting average. While he has started the last two games and 10 total, his 20.9 minutes per game are befitting of a reserve. Nothing about his offensive skill set strikes as extraordinary.
Last weekend offered two examples of why he’s much more than his basic stats or skills insinuate. He has the Ohio Valley’s highest offensive rebound percentage in conference games. He’s the only EIU forward to average more than an assist per game.
Thursday against UT-Martin, he jump-started the Panthers in both halves. He canned a 3-pointer after grabbing a loose ball and put back his own miss in the opening five minutes. He was the only EIU player with a positive plus/minus in the first half.
Matlock started the second half on a personal 6-0 run. Twice in the first two minutes he established post position on a larger defender and scored, first on a face-up and then on a jump-hook. He posted up a third time, drew a foul and made both free throws. EIU’s 12-point halftime deficit was suddenly six. He followed with two more offensive rebounds in the next four minutes, and each led to EIU points.
Two days later, he stole the ball away from SEMO point guard Jonathan Dalton, assisted on a Josiah Wallace layup and scored on a post-up all in 72 seconds. He swiped Dalton again before exiting with 14:07 left in the first half and EIU up 10.
When SEMO whittled away at its early hole and tied the score in the second half, Matlock, of all people, raised his hand to answer the Redhawks’ buckets. He gave EIU the lead on three separate occasions – a short jumper to go up 39-37, a put-back of his own miss to lead 41-40 and a layup off an offensive rebound to go up 53-52.
“That’s somebody who works his ass off and is in the gym all the time,” Smith said afterward, “And to see it pay off and the coaches noticing it, I feel happy for him.”
The minutes with Matlock off the court reveal as much about his importance as much as his time on it. These days, he’s on the bench not because of limitations or lack of trust, but because fouls have been a nagging bugaboo. He’s fouled out in two of EIU’s last three games and picked up four in the win at UT-Martin. Five of his nine fouls last weekend came while trying to rebound.
Matlock says it’s a result of getting tired and “kind of slapping down on some guys.” Spoonhour observed the same. He’s cautious when using Matlock after he racks up fouls, but that takes a back seat when the player’s impact is needed and something doesn’t look right with him out.
A stretch in the second half against SEMO serves as the best example. He picked up his fourth foul with 7:02 left and EIU up 49-46. Spoonhour took him out. SEMO’s Isaiah Gable, who Matlock had previously guarded and held rebound-less, made a tying 3 a minute later. Spoonhour inserted him almost immediately and stuck him back on Gable. He chased Gable around a couple screens. He helped too far off Gable on his second possession back and allowed a 3, but responded with his third lead-changing basket.
Matlock lasted only a few more possessions, though, and fouled out with 3:24 left when wrestling Gable for a rebound. EIU led 55-52. The Panthers were outscored 14-4 the rest of the way. Thursday, UT-Martin outscored EIU by seven when Matlock sat for the final 8:45 of the first half. His absence wasn’t the sole cause of either opponent run, nor was he alone the antidote for it, but at this point, his impact is becoming clearer when he’s on the floor or off it.
“When he’s on the court, it just affects us defensively and with rebounding,” Smith said. “He brings that kind of juice.”
Spoonhour trusts him to provide it now more than ever.
“Just trying to do anything possible to stay on the floor,” Matlock said.