The Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team suffered its first Ohio Valley Conference loss of the season Saturday night, 63-59 at Eastern Kentucky.
It's a game the Redhawks could have and probably should have won. They led much of the way and killed themselves by making just 4 of 13 free throws.
But the defeat shouldn't take the luster off the Redhawks' 3-1 OVC start that is the program's best since the 1999-2000 NCAA tournament squad began league play 4-0.
Southeast still was able to split its first OVC road trip, thanks to Thursday's 73-71 comeback victory at Tennessee-Martin.
That came after the Redhawks steamrolled Morehead State and Jacksonville State by an average of 17 points at home to open their conference schedule.
The Redhawks, who fell to 8-8 after having their first four-game winning streak since the 2004-05 campaign snapped, have given fans hope that this indeed might be a breakthrough season.
Southeast has positioned itself nicely one-quarter of the way through its 16-game OVC schedule thanks to improved overall play and more consistency, especially on the defensive end.
And the Redhawks have a chance to build on their fast conference start this week. Southeast will be favored in home games against first-year OVC member SIU-Edwardsville on Thursday and Eastern Illinois on Saturday.
Win those two and Southeast fans really could get excited about a 5-1 league record.
Some caution would still apply to the Redhawks' situation. None of Southeast's first six OVC opponents were picked in the top four of the league's preseason poll. And four of the squads -- Tennessee-Martin, Eastern Illinois, Jacksonville State and SIUE -- were predicted to occupy the bottom four spots in the league, although SIUE has been an early surprise at 3-1.
The Redhawks' OVC schedule heats up after this week, with the biggest challenges still ahead.
For now, Southeast fans should be pleased with the improved product third-year coach Dickey Nutt has put on the court.
A big topic of conversation among Southeast basketball fans, besides the Redhawks' recent strong play, is why touted freshmen Nino Johnson and Telvin Wilkerson have received so little playing time over the past several weeks after they were key parts of the rotation early in the season.
The answer is fairly simple. Right now they are stuck behind more experienced players who have been productive while helping the Redhawks get off to a solid start in the OVC.
Nutt experimented with player combinations early in the season, but in recent weeks the rotation has been reduced significantly.
Most teams don't dig all that deep into their bench, especially when things are going well. Ditto for Southeast.
Johnson and Wilkerson are talented players and figure to be key contributors for the Redhawks -- maybe even stars -- over the next several years. They still could factor into the mix this season.
The nationally ranked Murray State men's basketball team suffered a blow when leading rebounder Ivan Aska suffered a broken hand Dec. 30 at Eastern Illinois.
Aska, a senior forward, is expected to be sidelined at least a few weeks.
Aska, averaging 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds, missed the Racers' two games last week -- but they didn't miss a beat.
The Racers beat visiting Eastern Kentucky 76-67 on Wednesday and host Austin Peay 87-75 on Saturday. They improved to 16-0 to tie the best start in program history.
Murray State is the OVC's only unbeaten squad in league play at 4-0. Eastern Kentucky is second at 4-1, with Southeast, Tennessee Tech and SIUE all at 3-1.
Preseason conference favorite Austin Peay (0-3) still is searching for its first league victory. Tennessee-Martin (0-5) is the OVC's other winless team.
How about this OVC women's basketball result from last week: Tennessee-Martin 114, Tennessee State 105.
The contest in Nashville, Tenn., set an OVC single-game record for combined points. The previous mark came during a 110-106 win by Morehead State over Eastern Kentucky during the 1992-93 season.
Tennessee-Martin (3-0) and Eastern Illinois (1-0) remain unbeaten in league play. Jacksonville State (0-4) is the lone squad without a league win.
Wake Forest University announced last week that assistant Tim Billings, a former Southeast coach, was leaving the staff to pursue other coaching opportunities. At least one internet report said Billings was let go by the Demon Deacons.
Billings, the Wake Forest co-defensive coordinator this year, had been on the staff since 2006 in a variety of positions.
Billings coached Southeast from 2000 through 2005. He went 25-43, including an 8-4 mark in 2002 that at the time was the program's best record since 1969. That performance garnered him OVC and region coach of the year honors.
Billings always was a standup guy, and I had a good relationship with him during his days in Cape Girardeau. Here's wishing him the best in the future.
Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.