This late in the season, we too often measure a team solely on their record. We look at teams like Eastern Illinois, a team that lost 11 straight games at one point this season, and lost to a NAIA school on their own home floor, and we tend to think of them based too much on what those two numbers tell us.
But 8-19 isn’t the whole story.
The Panthers 11th loss in their season-long losing streak came on January 27th, in Murray, Kentucky. Eastern Illinois was down just three at the break to Murray State, but couldn’t contain the Racers shooters, falling by 21 on the road.
Tonight, Eastern Illinois got their revenge, in a 79-70 win over the Racers. But even that only tells part of the story.
So, what is the full story?
It’s this: No team is more improved, and few teams are playing better basketball in the Ohio Valley Conference right now than the team from it’s northern edge. A team left for dead almost exactly one month ago is not only poised to make the OVC Tournament, but look like a team capable of making a run.
Say what you want about the schedule, how EIU’s recent success as only been against the Western Division, their loss to Austin Peay on Thursday. When you watch this team play, they’re not the same team struggling to break sixty points night in and night out. The offense is crisp, and the defense is smart.
They didn’t beat a Murray State team having an off night. They beat a Racers team that drained 15 three-pointers, had four double-digit scorers, pulled down more offensive rebounds, and had fewer turnovers. Nine nights out of ten, those kind of statistics lead to wins.
Then there’s night’s like tonight. Nights where a team takes their opponents best punch, and only punches back harder.
It’s rare when I know the answer a player or coach is going to give to a post-game question, but before I ever stuck a recorder in front of any player from the Panthers bench, I knew how big tonight’s win was. I could see it on their face as they celebrated on the court. I could hear the excitement from outside the locker room, even when the door was closed.
“This is a great win,” Panthers forward Sherman Blandford said. “We’ve just been looking forward to this game all year.”
“Are you kidding? It’s great,” head coach Jay Spoonhour said. “We could never expect this.”
The win for Eastern Illinois was their first over the Racers in three seasons, when EIU shocked Murray State at home in January of 2011. That win in the 2010-11 season was the last success the Panthers would see in conference play that year. EIU moved to 4-4, only to finish the year losing their final 10 conference games, finishing at 4-12.
This time around, the Panthers biggest win doesn’t appear to be the end of their success. Just the apex of it. I have little doubt I’ll see Eastern Illinois again in Nashville in a few weeks. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they stick around for a few days.