By Bob Flynn
Register Sports Writer
MADISON COUNTY —
The Colonels (21-6, 10-3 OVC) overcame a slow start then weathered a late run by Jacksonville State (15-10, 7-7) to pick up a record-breaking win of the year, 80-67 Saturday on Senior Night in McBrayer Arena.
The win makes the Colonels the first team in school history to win 21 regular-season games in a year. It also assures the Colonels of a top-four seed and a first-round bye in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in Nashville in two weeks.
The combination of Jacksonville State coming out on fire to begin the game and the Colonels’ defense not being up to its usual standards resulted in the Gamecocks rushing out to a 27-18 lead mid-way through the first half.
But after a timeout by EKU coach Jeff Neubauer, the Colonels regrouped and Glenn Cosey ignited a 15-2 run, scoring 10 straight points, that ended with a Tarius Johnson basket and a 33-29 EKU lead with 4:28 left in the half.
Eric Stutz redeemed himself from an intentional foul to grab three big rebounds and score two quick baskets and Corey Walden hit a shot at the buzzer to put the Colonels up 39-34 at the break.
Neubauer said the defense that had carried the team all season was nowhere to be found early in the game.
“The thing we have prided ourselves on all year is the way we’ve defended ... We started out tonight as poorly as we’ve played all year on the defensive end,” Neubauer said. “We didn’t have any ball pressure, our denial was nonexistent and our help-side defense was not there. But our players fixed that through the rest of the game. We guarded much better, especially to finish the half and to open the second half.”
Stutz set the tone for the defensive effort to begin the second half getting two rebounds and two put-back baskets inside the first two minutes.
Walden, the team’s best defender, once again put the clamps on another team’s leading scorer.
JSU’s Tarvin Gaines scored 14 points in the game’s first 10 minutes as the Gamecocks ran out to the early lead.
After a defensive switch mid-way through the first half, Walden held Gaines scoreless until he hit a basket with just over four minutes left in the game.
During that time, the EKU offense came alive as well.
The Colonels outscored JSU 26-8 the first 11 minutes to take their largest lead of the game at 65-48 with just under nine minutes to go.
“We ended up winning the game with our offense, but if we are going to do what we ant to do here the rest of the way, we’ve got to guard,” Neubauer said. “Corey Walden is our best defender by far and it’s not only the plays he makes on the ball, it’s the rotations away from the ball. He had tremendous steals and deflections.”
Jacksonville State didn’t give up though and quickly went on a 15-3 run of their own to cut the Colonels lead down to 68-60 with four minutes left.
Tarius Johnson drained a three pointer to right the ship for the Colonels but once again JSU scored seven straight to get to within four at 71-67 with 1:48 left.
But Cosey had an answer, draining his fifth three pointer of the game to push the lead back to 74-67 and the Colonels held on the rest of the way.
Cosey led five Colonels in double figures with 21 points. Walden finished with 19 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals, Tarius Johnson had his first double-double as a Colonel with 15 points and 11 rebounds and five assists, Stutz had 11 points and eight rebounds and DiNunno added 10 points despite being in early foul trouble. Marcus Lewis and Jeff Johnson had two points each.
The Colonels have done a much better job on the boards in recent games and outrebounded the Gamecocks 32-25.
Neubauer credited the improved play of Stutz and Tarius Johnson for the better rebounding numbers.
“It has really helped moving Eric to the five spot. We’ve won five in a row and he’s played so much better. He made a play with about three and a half minutes left that he wishes he shouldn’t but he made up for it the rest of the half and starting the second half,” Neubauer said. “He and Tarius did an outstanding job on the glass for Tarius to get 11 rebounds and Eric to get eight rebounds. We need those two guys to go get every rebound.”
The Colonels return to action Wednesday against Austin Peay in the final home game of the season.