Southeast Missouri State University picked up an expected victory over Central Methodist University Saturday night -- but it was far from the breather most people probably anticipated.
Apparently on their way to a lopsided loss as they trailed by 21 points with under seven minutes left, the Eagles rallied to within three points in the final minute before Southeast held on for an 83-77 triumph.
An announced crowd of 3,474 at the Show Me Center -- there appeared to be far fewer than that in attendance -- saw Southeast improve to 3-4. CMU, an NAIA squad from Fayette, Mo., fell to 8-5.
"I don't want to take anything away from Central Methodist. They played an excellent game," Southeast senior guard Brett Hale said. "But we don't feel too good right now. I think we relaxed, and you can't do that. But it's a win."
Said Southeast coach Gary Garner: "We didn't play great all night, but we had the 21-point lead and then we kind of quit playing. We thought the game was over and you cannot do that, especially the way they can shoot."
The day started out bad enough for Southeast. During the team's shootaround several hours before the game, starting center Ketshner Guerrier suffered a knee injury that continued the squad's run of ailments this season.
Guerrier, a junior college transfer coming off the best performance of his young Southeast career, did not dress out Saturday and he could miss several weeks, although the extent of the injury was not immediately known.
"That's the first time that's ever happened to me, a player getting hurt in shootaround," Garner said. "That's pretty much the way it's gone for us so far with all the injuries."
Then Southeast had to survive a furious comeback by CMU after the Eagles fell behind 77-56 with 6:40 remaining.
But after a 21-3 run capped by Jordan Willer's conventional three-point play with 59 seconds left, the Eagles found themselves down just 80-77.
Things could have gotten even scarier for Southeast after senior guard Derek Winans missed a short shot, but Southeast was able to get the rebound and Winans was fouled with 25 seconds left. He made one of two free throws for an 81-77 lead.
After a CMU turnover, Hale hit one of two free throws with 15 seconds remaining. A missed shot by the Eagles was followed by one of two free throws by senior forward Dainmon Gonner with five seconds left to close out the victory.
"They've got a lot of good shooters and you have to give them credit for coming back," Winans said.
Hale led Southeast with 19 points as he was the Copi-Rite player of the game. Hale hit four of seven 3-pointers and he is now a sizzling 16 of 26 from long range on the season for the best percentage in the Ohio Valley Conference.
"I'm feeling pretty good with my shot," Hale said. "I've got a lot of confidence."
Gonner scored 18 points and senior forward Reggie Golson had 16 points as he hit eight of 12 shots.
Winans added 13 points in his highest-scoring performance since returning from a stress fracture that forced him to miss the season's first four games.
"I'm getting there," Winans said. "It felt good to get some shots to fall."
Freshman point guard Paul Paradoski led Southeast in assists with seven while junior guard Fuzzy Belcher had a team-high four steals and a season-high eight points off the bench.
Willer, a junior forward, led five Eagles in double figures by scoring 22 points. He hit eight of 14 shots, including three of six 3-pointers.
The Eagles led just once all night, 3-2 in the opening moments, and Southeast appeared to be at least comfortably in front virtually the entire way until late.
Southeast led 23-6 less than six minutes into the first half and was ahead 42-26 late in the period before CMU pulled to within 46-37 at the intermission.
After Gonner's basket with 6:40 to play gave Southeast its biggest advantage at 77-56, CMU appeared on its way to the expected blowout loss.
But the Eagles had other ideas before Southeast was able to barely hang on.
"I think this was a wakeup call for us," Hale said. "We can't just walk out on the court and take anything for granted."
Southeast shot 50 percent (34 of 68) on its way to a season-high point total and had just nine turnovers after averaging nearly 18 turnovers through the first six games.
CMU shot 51 percent (25 of 49) and also made 20 of 26 free throws compared to nine of 15 from the line for Southeast.
Now Southeast will have a week to prepare for powerful Southern Illinois, which visits the Show Me Center next Saturday night.
"They're a tough team and we just have to work as hard as we can to get ready for them," Winans said.