Redhawks to face surprising EIU

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The women could pull within a half-game of first place with a win.

Since joining the Ohio Valley Conference in 1996, the Eastern Illinois women's basketball team has posted one winning league record.

And the Panthers never have finished higher than fifth in the OVC standings.

Through the early stages of this season, EIU looks headed for a breakout campaign.

Southeast Missouri State will try to slow down the surging Panthers today in a 5 p.m. tipoff in Charleston, Ill.

"I'm sure they haven't been in that position before," Southeast coach John Ishee said of EIU's best-ever OVC start. "It's a big game for both teams."

While two-time defending OVC regular-season and tournament champion Southeast (8-5, 3-1) is in its familiar place toward the top of the standings -- the Redhawks are in second place -- EIU is in uncharted territory.

The Panthers (6-7, 5-0) are leading the league after beating Murray State 62-59 on Thursday night for their sixth straight win. This from a squad that has had nine consecutive losing OVC records.

"They're having a great conference season so far," Ishee said. "I think they've shown that they're for real."

What makes EIU's league start even more impressive is that the Panthers have thrived despite their top two returning players missing significant time due to injuries.

Rachel Galligan, a 6-foot-2 junior forward who was the OVC's No. 2 scorer and No. 4 rebounder last season at 17.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, missed EIU's first two conference contests.

Galligan, first-team all-OVC a year ago, returned for the last three games. She scored 51 points in the last two outings, including 27 against Murray State.

Jessica Huffman, a 5-7 sophomore guard who was the OVC's No. 3 scorer last year (16.9 ppg) while being named the league's freshman of the year and second-team all-conference, missed EIU's first four league games.

Huffman finally returned against Murray State, but played just nine minutes and went scoreless.

Ishee said the Panthers have used improved depth to fashion their fast conference start, after EIU went 7-13 in OVC play last season.

"Last year they pretty well relied on their big two [Galligan and Huffman]," Ishee said. "This year they have more balance, so you can't really key on any one player."

Galligan leads the Panthers offensively with a 14.5 average, including 19.7 in OVC games.

Huffman (11.9 ppg) and 5-10 sophomore guard Dominique Sims (11 ppg) are other double-figure scorers. Sims is a junior college transfer.

EIU has also been bolstered by the return of 5-7 sophomore point guard Megan Edwards, who was among the OVC's top freshmen two years ago, but missed last season with an injury.

"Sims has helped them, and they've gotten Edwards back, which has helped them," Ishee said. "They've got a lot of good players."

Sims is the OVC's No. 2 3-point shooter at 51.6 percent (16-of-31), while junior guard Ellen Canale is hitting 50 percent (11-of-22).

As for Southeast, the Redhawks have rebounded from a five-game losing streak to post four consecutive wins, including three conference victories.

"I think we're playing pretty well right now," Ishee said.

Southeast is continuing a stretch of OVC games that features six of seven on the road.

The Redhawks started that rugged period by posting league victories at Samford and Jacksonville State more than two weeks ago.

Following today's contest, Southeast hosts Murray State on Monday before playing three consecutive road games.

"We knew going into this stretch of playing six of seven conference games on the road that it would be a really critical part of our season," Ishee said.

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