Govs have eyes on OVC title in Indians' last home stand

Saturday, February 22, 2003

No disrespect to Morehead State, but Southeast Missouri State University coach Gary Garner says the Eagles take a back seat to Austin Peay as this season's surprise team in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Sure, Morehead leads the OVC at 12-2 despite being picked third in the preseason poll, but the Eagles finished a strong second last year and returned most of their starters, led by arguably the league's premier all-around player in Ricky Minard.

Austin Peay, on the other hand, went just 14-18 overall and a fourth-place 8-8 in the OVC last year -- and the Governors graduated one of the nation's leading scorers in Nick Stapleton. Not surprisingly, they were picked fifth in the preseason poll and were not expected to challenge the favorites.

But the Govs have fooled most of the so-called experts -- as well as their own coach. They're 17-7 overall and a second-place 10-3 in the OVC entering tonight's contest against Southeast (10-16, 4-9) at the Show Me Center. It will be the Indians' final home game of the season.

"Austin Peay has been the surprise team of the league, no question," Garner said. "There's no question in my mind who I'm going to vote for coach of the year, if it continues this way."

Austin Peay coach Dave Loos said he's as surprised as anybody by the Govs' performance, even though they returned four starters from last season.

"I can't say that I saw this coming," Loos said. "I was hoping we were a little better than fifth but can't say I thought we'd be doing this well."

The Govs are coming off an 80-76 loss Thursday at Eastern Illinois that ended a nine-game winning streak, their longest under 13-year coach Loos and the sixth-longest in school history. An ability to win close games has bolstered their cause.

Austin Peay beat preseason OVC favorite Murray State twice, each time by three points. The Govs slipped past two-time defending OVC regular-season champion Tennessee Tech by four points, beat Eastern Illinois in overtime and won three other games by seven, eight and nine points.

"We've managed to win a few close games that, a few points here and there, could have gone either way," Loos said. "We're a team with a thin margin for error, but we've played really well on the defensive end, which has been a big key for us."

The Govs are tied for the OVC lead in fewest points allowed (68.2 per game) and are second in field-goal percentage defense (43.0).

"They're very good defensively. I'm not sure they're not the best defensive team in the league," Garner said. "They play to their strengths. They're very good."

The Govs feature one of the OVC's more improved players in 6-foot-8 junior center Josh Lewis, who averages 12.4 points per game, shoots 61.4 percent from the field and has been a major force defensively and on the boards. Lewis leads the league in blocked shots with nearly three per game and is fifth in rebounding with 7.2 a contest.

Lewis displayed his improved offensive skills around the basket during a 62-49 win over Southeast on Jan. 25 in Clarksville, Tenn., with 23 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots.

"Josh Lewis, his rebounding and blocked shots, have made them a better basketball team," Garner said. "He's given them a lot of confidence."

The Govs' leading scorer is 6-6 junior forward Adrian Henning (15.2 ppg), 6-2 sophomore Anthony Davis (14.2 ppg) is one of the league's better guards and 6-4 junior forward Rhet Wierzba (9.0 ppg) is a dangerous 3-point threat at nearly 39 percent. Those three, along with Lewis, all started last year.

Rounding out the Govs' lineup is 6-1 junior point guard Corey Gipson (7.9 ppg), giving Austin Peay an all-underclass starting five. Gipson, a Three Rivers Community College transfer, started his high school career at Scott County Central before graduating from Richland.

While Austin Peay, which has won the last six games against Southeast, has its sights set on an OVC title, the Indians -- who broke a five-game losing streak by beating Western Illinois Tuesday -- are trying to finish the regular season with momentum. A win in their final home game would help.

"We really need to win this last home game and get some momentum going into our last two games and the conference tournament," said sophomore guard Derek Winans, the Indians' leading scorer at 15 points per game. "It's a big game for us."

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