Thrilling win for Panthers

The Eastern Illinois Panthers knocked off the visiting Northern Illinois Huskies on Saturday night, 59-55.

This Ohio Valley Conference versus Mid-American Conference matchup did not disappoint anyone at the 89th overall meeting of these intrastate rivals.

The large crowd of 2,044 fans certainly used everything at their disposal to help their team pull out of a tense late game battle for the lead.

“I’ve never felt that before. I felt like that was the real atmosphere that we need. Go have got to keep winning to get people here.” said Dylan Chatman.

In the final two minutes, down 57-55, NIU pulled out all the stops.

It was exactly what you’d want to see in a close game. They battled closely on defense, (not on shot contention,) battled for offensive rebounds, tied up EIU twice for jump balls.

Eastern tried to go halfway into their shot clock and score, but had to settle for playing tenacious defense, culminating in an offensive charging call with 26.5 to go. This play was pivotal for the Panthers.

“Big props to Keenen Anderson,” said Snoop Viser. “I got beat off of the dribble. I was looking for the screen because they were running a similar offense, a swing-action ball-side screen. I knew a screen was going to come, and he (Michael Orris) actually went baseline.”

“Coach (Spoonhour) got on us about taking charges,” said Viser. “They were getting into the lane in the first half. He told us that we just have to man-up and take those charges. We practice it every day, so we have to do it in a game. That play was the key of the game. Big props to Keenen Anderson.”

“Keeno is a perfect example of a guy being a huge impact on the game without scoring,” said Head Coach Jay Spoonhour. “Because Keeno guarded, he was able to switch screens, and he’s able to defend a guard. He’s the one guy that can go grab a ball and secure it. He’s trying to win and he gets a charge. Plays like that win games. Players are always thinking, ‘hey, I gotta go make a bucket,’ and that is fine too, I like that. But there are lots of ways to win. And Keeno is figuring it out. It’s a good call by Keeno. Run down there and get in front of him.”

NIU pressed, but committed a quick foul on Reggie Smith who missed both throws. That unmade free throws had the ingredients to be the easiest point(s) of the night for either team.

The score remained 57-55, with EIU holding delicately on to the lead.

EIU defensive pressure and scrappiness could not be outmatched in that final minute. With 2.2 seconds left on the clock, EIU was finally able to inbound the ball, only after two necessary timeouts resulting from the intense inbounding pressure of the NIU Huskies.

With the ball finally inbound, point guard Cornell Johnston was quickly fouled. He cathartically converted both of his free throws to put the game away, 59-55, win 1.6 seconds remaining.

Heavy Hearts

Unfortunately, a former EIU player, Andrew Gordon Gobczynski, 33, of St. Louis, passed away earlier this week. His funeral was attended by the entire basketball team.

“We wanted to get the ‘W’ for one of the former players that passed away. I wanted to get this W for him. I told his father I was gonna get this ‘W’ for him today” said junior guard LeTrell ‘Snoop’ Viser.

Gobczynski’s passing provided overwhelming motivation that the team fully utilized in tonight’s game.

Viser certainly took his promise to heart. He finished the night with 16 points, (6-12 overall) and 4-9 from three point range. He definitely did not stop there. He amassed five rebounds, two assists, two blocks, four steals, and only one turnover in 35 minutes of play.

He continues to be humble about his impact on the game.

“Whatever it takes to win,” said Viser. “If the coach wants me to sit, then I’m good with it. If he wants me out there to play, I’m good with it. I didn’t know that I played 35 minutes. I was just getting in the open windows. Our drivers go to the basket and the coach always tells them to find the windows so the shooters can find the shots. They want me to shoot more, so, I’m just letting it go man.”

Viser was starting for just the second time. He raised his scoring average to 6.5 ppg.

“But, I’m just trying to do the little things that coach wants me to do,” said Viser. “I’m just trying to produce and get better every day. He gave me that shot to be in the starting lineup, and I’m just trying to go out there and get the W.”

Viser’s shooting had been erratic, but EIU believes this to be a harbinger.

“I thought ‘Snoop’ had a couple of games here now where he’s gonna make them (shots) and I know he’s gonna make them,” said Head Coach Jay Spoonhour. “That feels pretty good. The thing that’ll happen now is that people will start scouting, now he isn’t going to be a surprise to anyone. It’s going to be harder to get shots off, but that is part of it. He’s going into the games trying to make the plays, which is how you have to attack this game.”

“He threw a couple in from real deep that was just terrible offense, but a lot of it was them (NIU) taking us out of it. They switched some ball screens and made it hard on us. Snoop can shoot it in now; he’s got a lot of range. Even though some of those look like even though they were semi-desperation, Snoop can make them. He’s getting it figured out. He and Dylan making shots make a huge difference. We’ve had a hard time making some buckets here. Those guys did a nice job.”

Opening push

Early on EIU was able overpower NIU, leading to a 13-0 run in four minute span. EIU was able to land shots from inside and out, with NIU being completely unable to close out on any outside shots.

EIU was also able to get great chances at fast breaks. The Panthers offense flourished in the transition and fast break attempts, scoring easily on a Husky defense that was frequently caught off guard.

Great defense down low, led by Chris Olivier and Keenan Anderson, continually altered any shot around the paint from NIU. With 11:34 seconds left in the first half, NIU was shooting 2-13 with only two free throws made on as many attempts.

Practice is the key, according to Viser.

“Getting over the ball screen, getting under the ball screen, just looking at the personnel of the other team,” said Viser. “Is he a scorer or is he just a driver? I think it shows in the game that we are getting better getting through the screens. It’s a big confidence boost, because that’s a big physical team. I know they beat us on the rebounds. It’s a huge win because that’s an in-state rival and we were fired up to play those guys.”

NIU allowed several open jumpers to fly, expecting a pass or continued dribbling. They continued to struggle with perimeter defense for the remainder of the game.

Darrell Bowie helped North Illinois settle into a groove midway through the second half.

He was an integral part of the Huskies offense. His overall contribution was hardly represented by the boxscore.
Bowie earned 14 points in 33 minutes of play. He grabbed nine rebounds, and two steals, while committing four turnovers in the game.

For the Panthers, all points from junior Olivier originated from the foul line in the first half. While having several low post attempts at scoring, the baskets would just not fall in.

“That’s our big, that’s our scoring big,” said Viser. “We have got to have that inside game so that we can put pressure on the other team, getting us to the free throw line. But, it wasn’t knocking down. He kept his composure, he kept telling us ‘just keep going out there; keep fighting.’ Even though he had an off-game, he just kept telling us ‘keep working, keep working.’”

Olivier finished the night with 5 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal, and 0 turnovers in his 14 minutes.

“It’s a tough team,” said Coach Spoonhour. “They are tough in a lot of ways. Physically they out rebound people by 12 a game and you saw why. They pursue the ball. They had a lot of balls rebounded that were out on the floor. We didn’t secure them, but it is because they go after it. That’s what these guys do. They are a tough group of guys, and they guard hard and I thought we did a really nice job defending them. I would have liked to have secured some balls better but that is what you get when you play them. That’s what it is. It’s hard to get the ball inbounds. It’s hard to do a lot of stuff because they are pretty good.”

It’s no wonder why there was such a large crowd present for this in-state rivalry game. It played up to its billing, and will be exciting to see if this atmosphere can be recaptured in their next meeting. The EIU Panthers and the NIU Huskies made each of the conferences proud.

EIU now holds the edge in the storied series, 45-44 all time. The Panthers lead 28-15 in Charleston, Illinois.

The Eastern Illinois University Panthers (4-6) next play the Sycamores of Indiana State on December 20th, at 1:05 PM CST, in the Hulman Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The Northern Illinois University Huskies (3-3) play in the Convocation Center, in DeKalb, Illinois, against the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils, on December 16th at 7 PM CST.

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