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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Southeast Missouri State women's basketball team is no offensive power, instead carving out much of its success on the shoulders of a stifling defense.
Southeast has won plenty of games this season when it struggled offensively.
But the Redhawks could not overcome their worst offensive performance of the season Friday afternoon.
As a result, Southeast will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.
Fourth-seeded Eastern Illinois beat the top-seeded Redhawks 52-40 in the semifinals of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
So it will be the Panthers (19-12), and not Southeast (23-8), who will play in today's OVC tournament championship game with an automatic NCAA berth on the line.
The Redhawks won the past two OVC tournaments to make the NCAA field. They also have captured three straight OVC regular-season titles.
"It will be very strange [not to be in the NCAA tournament]," said junior point guard Tarina Nixon, a starter since her freshman season. "I'm not used to it."
Southeast, losing for just the second time in 16 games, scored a season low and shot a season-worst 22.4 percent from the field (11-of-49).
The Redhawks also tied their season low by making just one 3-pointer, in 14 attempts (7.1 percent).
"We didn't make many shots," senior center Missy Whitney said.
Southeast entered the contest shooting 38.1 percent overall and 31 percent from 3-point range. Both figures rank among the bottom four in the 11-team OVC.
But that didn't prevent the Redhawks from setting an OVC record with 17 league victories.
The Redhawks won plenty of games when their shooting was off — including at Tennessee Tech, when they hit 25.4 percent, and the most recent meeting against EIU, when they made 30.4 percent.
"We won one where we shot 25 percent, but it's not a how-to on how to win a basketball game," Southeast coach John Ishee said regarding that degree of accuracy.
It certainly wasn't a how-to against the Panthers, a pretty solid defensive team in its own right.
"We just couldn't knock any shots down. You're not going to win many games shooting like we did," Ishee said. "I'm not going to say we were a step slow today, because we played good defense, like we have all year.
"Eastern Illinois executed a little better than we did and made a few more plays. They were the better team today."
EIU, which lost both regular-season meetings to Southeast by a total of nine points, shot 38.1 percent (16-of-42), including 2-of-12 from beyond the arc (16.7 percent).
"They just hit a couple more shots than we did," Ishee said.
Southeast has ranked among the OVC's top defensive squads during its run of titles. The Redhawks lead the league in scoring defense (56.5 points per game before Friday) and are third in field-goal defense (39.2 percent).
The Panthers have not been that type of team in recent seasons, but they changed their style this year.
Fourth-year EIU coach Brady Sallee said the adjustment to a more defensive-minded unit has been partly in deference to Southeast.
It worked. The Panthers rank ahead of Southeast in field-goal defense at less than 39 percent, which has sparked them to their first OVC tournament championship game appearance.
EIU had never made it to the semifinals during its previous 12 OVC seasons. This is the Panthers' first winning record in 13 years.
"We identified who was winning the league year in and year out. SEMO was winning the league," Sallee said. "It's a no-brainer. ... We did make a conscious effort to change our mentality.
"I can't say enough about our defense against a very good basketball team. I think that's what it boiled down to. I think we're a tough basketball team. We've developed that."
A tight first half that featured five lead changes and seven ties ended with EIU ahead 25-22.
Southeast played 11 minutes of the opening period without top scorer and rebounder Whitney, a first-team all-OVC performer who picked up two fouls.
Whitney was able to stay on the floor for 19 second-half minutes, but the Redhawks never got their offense going enough to catch up.
"I'd say it was a combination of both," said junior guard Sonya Daugherty, referring to strong EIU defense and poor Southeast shooting.
EIU opened a 10-point lead midway through the second half and Southeast got no closer than five points.
Daugherty was Southeast's lone double-figure scorer with 12 points. She also had nine rebounds and both of the Redhawks' assists, a team total that demonstrates just how much Southeast struggled offensively.
Whitney added nine points and seven rebounds.
"SEMO is a really tough team. We came into this knowing we would have to pick up our defensive end," EIU sophomore guard Megan Edwards said.
Junior center Rachel Galligan was the Panthers' only double-figure scorer with a game-high 18 points.
"We rode her," Sallee said of EIU's first-team all-conference player.
The only Southeast player to hit as many as half her shots was reserve junior guard Szandra Pal, who was 1-of-2 in limited action.
Southeast's five starters combined to shoot 9-of-44 (20.4 percent).
"Our offense caught up to us," Nixon said.
Sallee said the way Southeast has ruled the OVC in recent years adds more weight to EIU's victory.
"The run that they have been on ... has just been incredible," Sallee said. "They have been the cream of the crop in this league. We have so much respect for them and their coaching staff.
"That probably makes this even more special."
Despite the loss, Ishee had no complaints about the type of season the Redhawks have enjoyed.
"To go 17-3 in the conference, in a very balanced league, ... I couldn't be any prouder of my team," Ishee said.