In most years, the team many people are talking about heading into Nashville aren’t playing on the tournament’s first day. This year, Southeast Missouri has been an exception to that rule, with many fans buzzing about the Redhawks, winners of four straight to qualify for the tournament.
That’s not likely to stop after tonight.
The red-hot Redhawks hit 8-14 from behind the arc in a 79-61 win over seven-seeded Eastern Illinois in the first round of the OVC Tournament. All-OVC first team selection Tyler Stone scored a game high 27 points, shooting 11-17 from the field and perhaps more impressively, 3-4 from behind the arc in the win. Stone’s effort helped overcome a night which Jarekious Bradley struggled with fouls, playing just 14 minutes before fouling out.
“If you’re going to choose what you want him to do, you’re going to make him take jump shots,” Eastern Illinois head coach Jay Spoonhour said of defending Stone. “And he made them.”
“They were kind of playing off a little bit because it hasn’t been that good during the season,” Stone said of his three-point shooting. Coach just wants me to shoot it. There’s no thinking about it. We’re just up and down out there playing. Just shoot with confidence.”
While the offense shot 50% from the field, it was the Redhawks defense that especially impressed. SEMO held Eastern Illinois to 37% shooting from the field, as just four Panthers entered the scoring column on the night.
“It hasn’t been a secret that we haven’t been the best defensive team all year long,” Southeast Missouri head coach Dickey Nutt said. “But as of late, we’ve been getting a little better. We’re very patient defensively tonight. What that means in my mind is that we did a good job of staying solid and not putting ourselves in a bad situation. I thought we did a decent job on them.”
Nutt added that Bradley’s limited minutes may have been a blessing in disguise. The second-team all OVC selection has been battling a knee injury for much of the second half of the year.
Next up for the Redhawks is Eastern Kentucky, a team that beat SEMO in their only regular season matchup on a 30-foot buzzer beater from Glenn Cosey. As a result, SEMO has revenge on their mind, but Nutt hopes it’s not clouding their vision.
“It’s going to take an all-out total effort,” Nutt said. “We’ve got 24 hours to really get ready and change, because we’re going from night and day; playing Eastern Illinois where they’re really patient, to playing Eastern [Kentucky] where they like to run.”
For Eastern Illinois, this year in many ways mirrored last: following an up and down season, the Panthers won their final regular season game just to make it to Nashville, only to fall in the first round. The difference? Spoonhour says most of this year’s team, with the exception of Sherman Blanford, returns next season.
“It took us longer — I thought we were just slow at improving,” Spoonhour said of his team this season. “I thought we would be a better team at this point in the year. I’m not disappointed in what we did.”
“If there’s any disappointment, it’s that I couldn’t figure out what we could do better,” He added. “We did fine at the end. 7-9 is fine, it’s nothing to sniff at. But it’s got to go up. It’s got to get better, and that’s what I told my team tonight.”