UT Martin picked up a much needed second conference victory against Eastern Illinois Thursday night, as the Skyhawks defeated the Panthers 84-77.
Led by Terence Smith in the first half and Mike Liabo in the second, the Skyhawks erased an 11-point second half deficit to grab the win at home. With a 1-5 conference start, Head Coach Jason James said he didn’t place any extra emphasis saying that every conference game is important.
“It was important to get the win but they are all important especially the ones at home,” James said. “Tonight showed us that when we play our game that we can compete with anyone in the conference.”
The game opened with Eastern Illinois getting the early 6-2 lead as the Panthers used their size in the paint. The Skyhawks on fire from behind the arc as the Panthers defense collapsed which led to three 3’s for UTM including back-to-back 3’s from Smith for a 9-0 run.
The Panthers cut the lead to 13-11, but their inability to convert on open shots under the rim held the offense back. During this, UTM extended their lead to 25-17 as Smith continued his perfect shooting sinking a third 3-pointer with seven minutes remaining.
The shots started for fall for the Panthers with five minutes remaining as Josh Piper went back-to-back 3’s to pull within one point. EIU continued their shooting and extend the run into an 11-3 run to retake the lead. The Panthers finished the half on a 20-9 run to take a 37-34 lead into the locker rooms.
The first half was dominated by the Panthers on the glass, as they used their size advantage to control the final seven minutes. Led by Sherman Blanford’s 5 rebounds, the Panthers took a 23-11 rebounding advantage that kept Myles Taylor quiet. With the height advantage, Eastern Illinois went to the paint for 20 of their first half points.
Smith’s strong first half saw the junior guard finish with 14 points on five of seven shooting with three 3’s.
The second half began with the Panthers continuing the first half style, opening with six straight points in the paint and used a 10-2 run to push the lead to 47-36.
UT Martin battled back with with 3’s. Liabo and Bobby Jones led a 13-2 run for the Skyhawks to trim their deficit to four points with 11 minutes remaining as UTM went up-tempo and found open shooters behind the arc.
“I told the guys to just keep playing and we knew we could play ourselves back into game when we made the adjustment,” James said. That adjustment was to go fast and try and overcome the massive size differential that EIU presented them. “We couldn’t compete inside because they were bigger,” James said. “6’11 is going to beat 6’7 most of the time so we had to push the tempo to overcome it and it worked.”
After UT Martin tied the game at 54, both squads traded the lead back and forth until Liabo found Taylor in the paint to give the Skyhawks a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The Skyhawks turned to Liabo in the final minutes and UT Martin finished on a 14-7 run to close out the game.
UT Martin held Panthers leading scoring Reggie Smith to his 6th non-double digit scoring performance of the season. Blanford collected his fourth double-double of the season as he pulled down 13 rebounds with 15 points in the loss.
The shocking stat of the game was Myles Taylor who finished with 7 rebounds and two points.
“Usually the outcome is different when that happens,” James said. “Tonight wasn’t Myles night but it showed the heart of our team and that if we have to make changes we can do it.”
Saturday Eastern Illinois heads to Southeast Missouri while UT Martin hosts Jacksonville State.