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Southeast men face one of league's cellar dwellars
The Redhawks lead the OVC by a half-game over Austin Peay.
Even before Thursday night, Southeast Missouri State men's basketball coach Scott Edgar feared Eastern Illinois because of how close the Panthers had been to posting wins.
After the Panthers finally broke their 11-game losing streak, Edgar is even more wary of tonight's 7:15 p.m. Ohio Valley Conference matchup in Charleston, Ill.
"We're going to have our hands full," said Edgar, whose team leads the OVC with a 5-0 record and is 10-5 overall.
EIU (2-11, 1-4) notched its first league triumph Thursday night, beating visiting Murray State 83-80 in overtime.
Before that, the Panthers had not tasted victory since beating NAIA Harris-Stowe in their season opener nearly two months ago (Nov. 10).
Their 11-game losing streak plummeted the Panthers to dead last in the RPI rankings among 341 squads.
But all Edgar had to do was look at the Panthers' recent scores to realize they're no pushovers.
EIU had lost four straight games by a total of 14 points before Thursday's win. The Panthers' largest margin of defeat during that stretch -- which included three OVC defeats -- was five points.
"They had been playing everybody within a basket or two. They were so close to winning," Edgar said.
While the Redhawks are thriving right now in their second season under Edgar, the Panthers have struggled to get going under third-year coach Mike Miller.
Miller went 16-41 in his first two seasons at EIU, including 11-29 in OVC play for league finishes of ninth and 10th.
But with every starter returning from last year's 10-20 team that won three of its last five games, hopes were high for an EIU rebound.
That hasn't materialized so far. Not only have the Panthers suffered several narrow losses, but junior point guard Mike Robinson -- the OVC freshman of the year two seasons ago -- was dismissed from the squad after nine games.
Injuries and other defections also have hampered the Panthers.
Still, EIU has one of the conference's premier players in 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Romain Martin, last season's OVC co-freshman of the year.
Martin, who averaged a team-high 14.8 points per game while shooting 38 percent from 3-pointer range as a rookie, is not suffering through a sophomore jinx.
Martin is the OVC's third-leading scorer with a 17.2 average. He is also fifth in 3-point shooting (43.6 percent) and second in 3-pointers made (44, 3.38 per game).
"They can ride him all night long," Edgar said. "He's as good as any perimeter player in the league."
EIU has another solid scorer in 6-6 senior forward Bobby Catchings (11.9 ppg).
And against Murray State, 6-1 freshman guard Tyler Laser exploded for a career-high 27 points off the bench. He is averaging just 6.5 points.
But the Panthers have struggled offensively, averaging 62.2 points and shooting 43 percent.
The Panthers have been solid from 3-point range at 37.6 percent, but they are allowing the opposition to shoot 40.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Southeast is the conference's top 3-point shooting team (38.9 percent).
The Redhawks, who have won six of their last seven, are off to the program's second-best OVC start, trailing only the 1998-99 team, which won its first seven OVC games.
"We want to stay undefeated as long as we can," senior forward Brandon Foust said.
If the Redhawks can avoid an upset tonight, they'll have a chance to equal that 1998-99 squad when archrival Murray State visits the Show Me Center on Monday night.
But junior guard Kenard Moore, who is Southeast's second-leading scorer in OVC play with a 12.8 average, emphasized that the Redhawks can't afford to overlook the Panthers.
"You can't look at records," Moore said. "Anybody can win at any time."