Saturday night’s game between visiting Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky had it all.
Featuring six ties, eight lead changes, four players scoring in double figures for each side and both teams making clutch plays at the end, victory remained in doubt until the final seconds when Djimon Henson’s desperation heave off a missed EKU free throw fell well short, ending the game in favor of the Colonels, 75-73.
The matchup seemed worthy of two squads battling for position for the upcoming Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
So, why are these two proud rivals fighting to get out of the OVC cellar?
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For EKU (9-18, 3-11 OVC), this season has been full of tough losses and hard luck. For Morehead (6-19, 2-12), a team with no seniors and only four returning players, this year has dealt a series of lessons on what it takes to win.
“Both teams are battling,” said EKU’s third-year coach Dan McHale on Saturday after the Colonels’ win. “Both teams are playing hard as heck.”
Perhaps, EKU’s troubles are more concerning. Picked to finish fourth in the preseason OVC coaches’ survey, the Colonels returned five of their top six scorers including preseason All-OVC selections in junior forward Nick Mayo and sophomore guard Asante Gist.
But Gist, who set EKU’s freshman scoring record last year, got pulled after committing three fouls and two turnovers in 10 scoreless first-half minutes in a win over Charleston Southern on Dec. 15. He didn’t return to the game and remained out of the lineup thereafter.
A report on his transfer to Iona on Jan. 18 said Gist had been dealing with an ankle injury that limited him this year and that he’ll seek a medical waiver to begin playing there in December. Gist, an East Orange, N.J., native, said he wanted to play “closer to home.”
When asked about Gist last month, McHale told the Richmond Register he was “focused on these guys right now.”
The loss of Gist hurt. Injuries to much of the rest of the lineup haven’t helped.
“We’ve had some devastating injuries,” McHale said Saturday. “Jackson Davis was playing his best ball of the season before we lose him for the season (torn labrum). We’ve had one guy play every game (Mayo). … You’ve got to keep fighting. I’ve got a great locker room, great chemistry.”
Dujuanta Weaver, one of McHale’s key playmakers, has had a couple of knee problems this season, including an ACL scare in the Colonels’ exhibition opener that kept him out of the team’s first seven games. EKU’s second leading scorer, Dedric Boyd, who missed two games and was limited in a few others, went down with an Achilles tendon injury last week against Tennessee-Martin.
“Obviously, I think whether it be the players or the coaching staff or the administration, I think this season has been a disappointment,” said EKU Athletics Director Stephen Lochmueller. “My advice to Coach is just ‘stay focused, keep working with the kids. Keep trying to get better.’ That’s about all you can do. Look at the (Tennessee-Martin) game: It looks like we’re going to win it with eight seconds on the clock and they hit a three-pointer to beat us (70-69).”
McHale said his team did everything it could do to win the UT-Martin game. It executed what he wanted and just got beat.
“We’ve had five conference losses — I’ve never seen this before. I went through them — we were either plus one, down one or tied with 30 seconds to go and had a chance,” McHale said looking at the season. “We’ve just been on the short end of it.”
Wins in each of those games could have turned what is an ugly 9-18 season into a still worrisome but less desperate 14-13 mark, a record that would have them closer to where they were expected to be.
“I look at this team and it’s a great group of young men,” Lochmueller said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ve lived up to their potential, and that comes back to us. We need to figure out why they haven’t lived up to their potential.”
When Preston Spradlin took over as head coach after the dismissal of Sean Woods early last season, he got a veteran squad which overcame the early-season turmoil to go 14-16, with an impressive 10-6 conference record.
But only four players from last season’s team returned. And only three of them earned significant playing time. Meanwhile, Spradlin turned over all but one assistant coach on his staff.
“When we started the year, we started with 10 new players on our roster, so you have to take that for what it is.” said Brian Hutchinson, Morehead’s athletics director. “You have an opportunity to shape a team, but it’s a young team. So, all the lessons you’re trying to teach and all the things that are your duty as a coach and as a staff and as a program, you have to be patient with that.”
Hutchinson’s stated preference is to build a team from the freshmen up and not try to rely on transfers to bolster the roster.
“It’s very hard (not to) panic and go sign a bunch of junior-college guys and transfers, because you have to work so hard to build your team all the time,” Hutchinson said. “This is a year that we’re going to take some lumps. We probably thought we would some. But it will pay off.”
Spradlin can point to an upset win over Marshall early in the season — a team that beat EKU around the same time — as a sign of the team’s potential.
He can also look at six losses that were decided by five points or fewer like Saturday’s loss to EKU. Down four with 31 seconds to go, the Eagles got a three-pointer by DeAndre Dishman to cut it to one and got the benefit of a missed EKU free throw that helped them tie it on an A.J. Hicks jumper with 13 seconds left. But Hicks missed a free throw that would have tied the game again with just two seconds left.
“We’ve been in this situation a lot,” Spradlin said. “Give Eastern Kentucky credit, but that will really pay off for us going forward. You’ve got to truly believe it. Everything happens for a reason, and these close losses, you hope next year or down the stretch this year will turn into close wins for you.”
Reasons for optimism
EKU retains a shot at gaining entry into the eight-team OVC Tournament in Evansville, Ind. The Colonels are two games out of eighth with four games to play.
After Saturday’s win McHale lauded his team’s effort and enthusiasm despite the hard times.
“I knew this team was special because after every loss they keep coming back in practice, and I’m feeling down. And I step out on the floor and they’re upbeat and positive, and it gets me excited,” McHale said. “They’re a self-motivated group and a group that just continues to fight. They deserved that win tonight.”
While Saturday’s loss pretty much ended the Eagles’ chances at the postseason, Spradlin also commended his players.
“It’s a hard thing for these young kids to come in and be optimistic and come in and work hard with no promise that you’re going to come out successful. …,” Spradlin said. “I like my young guys. I like the fight that they have. I like how they’re learning and being coached. And it’s really, really going to pay off for them very soon.”
Eastern Kentucky at Belmont
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Tennessee State at Morehead State
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday