RICHMOND — Eastern Kentucky's basketball rivalry with Morehead State is intense.
"It means everything," EKU guard Mike DiNunno said Saturday night. "Especially to our alums. We have a lot of people who really thoroughly enjoy seeing that end score. ... It's just great to make them happy."
The Colonels did exactly that, beating Morehead 59-52 before a McBrayer Arena crowd of 5,300.
And they did so by somehow shifting to a higher gear after a lackluster start.
Morehead led 20-14 with five minutes left in the half.
EKU went briefly to a 1-3-1 zone and scored the next 12 points to lead 26-20. Eastern closed the half on an 18-1 run to lead 32-21.
"Just the intensity," EKU's Orlando Williams said in explaining the turnaround. "We picked up the intensity; that really starts our defense."
Right, teammate Eric Stutz said: "We picked up our defense a bunch. We started to hustle more. We were getting in the passing lanes, and our defense creates our offense. We got real energized out there."
Eastern (14-3) is off to a 4-0 start in the Ohio Valley Conference, its best since a 5-0 start to the 1978-'79 season. In addition, the Colonels posted their 11th consecutive home-floor victory, including 10 this season.
Their next big test comes Thursday at Belmont, the pre-season pick to win the OVC.
DiNunno led a balanced EKU scoring attack with 13 points, adding four assists and three steals.
Tarius Johnson chipped in with 11 points and seven rebounds. Williams and Stutz scored 10 each, with Stutz grabbing six rebounds and Williams handing out four assists.
Eastern scored the first five points of the second half, making for a 23-1 run overall, and led by as many as 20 points in the second half.
"They scored a lot off of our bad plays and our turnovers," Eagles Coach Sean Woods said, "not really on their half-court sets."
Morehead then scored nine in a row, finishing the game with an 18-5 rally to make the score respectable.
"I'm really proud of our defensive effort tonight," EKU Coach Jeff Neubauer said. "I believe with about five minutes and change left Morehead only had 32 points. So that's how we won the game, is that we really did defend them, and that's how we got the big lead."
The Colonels, again playing without point guard Glenn Cosey (broken finger), also handled Morehead's press. Marcus Lewis, Corey Walden and Robbie Stenzel all spent time at the "backup quarterback" position.
And EKU did an exceptional job on the glass. Morehead came in as the OVC's second-best rebounding team (37.9 a game) and with the best rebounding margin (4.6 a game). EKU, 12th in both categories, finished with one board fewer than Morehead's 36.
The Colonels outscored the Eagles 30-22 in the paint and 26-19 off of turnovers. The outcome was a result of something Neubauer talks about often with his players: "Let's just play harder. Let's play harder than the day before. So I did love our effort."
Williams was in on several hustle plays. Stutz was always quick to get back on defense.
"So many guys just busting up plays or just coming up with loose balls," Neubauer said, "and that's what we have to be about."
Drew Kelly paced Morehead (8-10, 2-2) with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Bakari Turner scored 11 points.
"I thought we got off to a good start," Woods said. "Our game plan was pretty good defensively, stopping their offense. When you hold DiNunno to 13 points, that's pretty good. And held the team to 39 percent field-goal percentage and 25 percent from the three, which is what we wanted to do. You think you have a chance. But we're still a work in progress, as you can see. Especially offensively."
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com