After a slow first half, the women’s basketball team put up 43 second-half points against the Eastern Illinois University Panthers to win 72-55 in its last regular season game.
In their last game at the Vadalabene Center, senior guard Tierny Austin and senior forward Allyssa Decker were honored before the game for their service to the team. Austin averaged 12.3 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game this year. Decker, whose career has been plagued with injuries, played in 10 games during the 2014-15 campaign.
Head Coach Paula Buscher highly praised both players, and said they have both impacted the team in a different way.
“I can’t say enough about those two,” Buscher said. “It’s not just what they bring to us and what they give on the basketball court. [Austin], on the court, has done tremendous things for us. [Decker] has had so many injuries, but what she gives and brings to those younger players is invaluable. I think, more importantly, it’s that they are great people — high character people — that are going to go on to represent us, the women’s basketball program at SIUE, in a very positive way.”
In a 29-point first half, the Cougars shot 34.5 percent from the field, but found themselves up at half time due to an outstanding finish by redshirt junior guard Shronda Butts. With the team struggling, Butts kept her team in the game, scoring six of the Cougars’ final eight points in the first half. Junior guard CoCo Moore hit a buzzer-beating layup to give SIUE a four-point lead at halftime.
Buscher said she believed the offense’s struggles were due in part to the team’s inability to stop EIU on the other end.
“I thought we struggled a little bit in the first half,” Buscher said. “We couldn’t get into a flow offensively, but I really felt that was because our defense wasn’t on point like it normally is. I did think we did a great job. We held their top scorer down. I really felt like in the second half, we settled in and got in a little bit of a flow. We got some transition baskets, and that always gets us going.”
In the second half, Butts dropped 13 points on the visitors, going 4-7 from the field and making all four free throws. Adding to Butts’ points, Austin went a perfect 2-2 with seven points and a steal.
Buscher said the team’s ability to stop the Panthers, who had 30 points in the second half made the difference.
“When we’re on top of things defensively — communicating and getting stops — we get it going in transition, and I thought that really helped us,” Buscher said.
The victory gave the Cougars a 13-3 record in the Ohio Valley Conference, the team’s highest win total in the conference. It also meant SIUE is the No. 2 seed in the upcoming OVC Tournament, which if won, means the team will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Buscher said the mental toughness of this year’s team has helped it succeed more than past years’ teams.
“[The players] play so hard for each other, and I think that makes a difference,” Buscher said. “They are a very competitive group. They walk on the floor in a positive way — not an overconfident way — but they expect to win. They know they are going to play super hard for each other.”
The Cougars’ first game in the OVC Tournament is at 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 4, in Nashville, Tenn., where SIUE faces Austin Peay State University. The Cougars defeated APSU twice this season.
Despite this, Buscher said the team will not be cocky heading into the tournament.
“We’re going to take it just like we have all year — one game at a time,” Buscher said.
If the Cougars win Wednesday, they face the winner of the Tennessee State University/Morehead State University game at 2 p.m. Friday, March 6, in Nashville, Tenn.