First-year coaches weather slow starts

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois gain momentum.

After somewhat rocky starts, the Ohio Valley Conference's two first-year men's basketball coaches now have reason to be optimistic.

Eastern Kentucky returned three starters from last year's 22-9 team that set a school record for wins, won the OVC tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1979. The Colonels were picked second in the OVC preseason poll.

But earlier this month, Jeff Neubauer's Colonels were limping along at 2-3 in the OVC and apparently going nowhere fast.

Then came a dominant 93-75 home win over conference power Tennessee Tech on Jan. 5, followed by two league road victories last week -- 65-63 at Morehead State on Thursday and 71-46 at Eastern Illinois on Saturday.

So, all of a sudden, the Colonels (8-8, 5-3 OVC) have climbed into fourth place in the standings and placed themselves squarely in the thick of the race. They have won six of their last eight games overall.

"We had not won any road games until this weekend, so it was a huge weekend for us just to make that step," Neubauer said during Tuesday's OVC coaches teleconference. "We're playing better basketball now than we were at the beginning of the season. ... We still have a long way to go. We still have a lot to learn as a basketball team."

Eastern Kentucky's resurgence has somewhat coincided with the improved play of star senior guard Matt Witt, who had been struggling with his shooting.

Witt has scored 68 points in the last three games, shooting 51.2 percent from the field and making 16 of 33 3-pointers.

While Eastern Illinois wasn't nearly as highly regarded as Eastern Kentucky entering the season, the Panthers were still considered to be dangerous, with some of the top young talent in the OVC, along with one of the league's premier players in senior guard Josh Gomes.

But Mike Miller's tenure at Eastern Illinois started with seven straight losses overall, and the Panthers dropped six of their first seven conference games.

A surprisingly competitive 66-65 loss at OVC power Murray State last Monday perhaps gave the Panthers a dose of confidence, and they have since won two of their past three league contests, including Monday's stunning 59-54 home triumph over Murray State.

That upset ended a stretch of six games in 11 days for the Panthers (4-12, 3-7), who also last week beat Tennessee-Martin 80-70 in overtime at home on Thursday, then were hammered by Eastern Kentucky at home on Saturday.

"We feel a little bit better about ourselves than we did a couple of days ago," Miller said. "We felt we had made some progress, and were anxious to see where we were at Saturday against Eastern Kentucky.

"We just got knocked back. That wasn't who we are ... then to have to come back and play Murray again, it was a real challenge. They responded. It's all on them. They competed."

The Panthers felt they were embarrassed by Saturday's 25-point home loss to Eastern Kentucky and needed to make amends against the potent Racers.

"We wanted to come out and prove to fans we could play hard," sophomore forward Bobby Catchings told the Charleston Times-Courier.

Tech bounces back

Tennessee Tech, which earlier in the season looked almost unbeatable before suffering a two-game OVC losing streak, has bounced back by winning four straight conference games, the last three on the road.

Highlighting the Eagles' hot stretch was Saturday's 88-85 overtime win at Samford, which not only ended the Bulldogs' six-game OVC winning streak but also avenged a stunningly lopsided 68-43 home loss to the Bulldogs on Jan. 2.

The Eagles overcame a 17-point deficit late in the first half at Samford. They tied the game on a 3-pointer by Anthony Fisher with time running out in regulation and won the contest on a 30-footer by Milone Clark at the overtime buzzer.

Tennessee Tech backed that up Monday by building a 21-point halftime lead at Austin Peay and holding on for a 79-75 victory that ended the Governors' 11-game home winning streak.

Coupled with Murray State's defeat at Eastern Illinois, the Eagles (12-5, 7-2) have moved into a first-place tie with the Racers (10-5, 7-2).

Samford (10-5, 6-2) is just one-half game back and tied on the loss side, while Eastern Kentucky is only one game behind the leaders on the loss side.

Tech takes women's lead

The recent play of Tennessee Tech's women mirrored that of the men. The Eaglettes also have won four straight OVC games, including three on the road.

Tennessee Tech also avenged a home loss to Samford by beating the host Bulldogs 63-51 on Saturday.

The Eaglettes (11-4, 7-1) moved into sole possession of first place ahead of the Bulldogs (11-4, 6-2), with Morehead State (10-4, 5-2) also just one game back on the loss side.

Eastern Illinois (7-9, 6-3) and Southeast Missouri State (8-7, 5-3) round out the top five.

While preseason OVC favorite Tennessee Tech is surging, defending regular-season and tournament champion Eastern Kentucky is floundering.

The Colonels (3-12, 3-5) have lost six straight games overall, including five straight in the league.

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