MACOMB, Ill. - Down seven midway through the second half Western Illinois battled back and used Ashley Luke's jumper with 57 seconds remaining to take the lead for good, then a late steal in the final seconds to secure a 70-68 win over in-state rival Eastern Illinois in Western Hall on Monday (Dec. 17). The win was the fourth in the last five games for the Fighting Leathernecks, and marks Western's first win over the Panthers since December 7, 2000.
Down by seven at the half, the Leatherneck (5-5 overall) offense returned to the court on fire, outdoing the Panthers 11-2 to take its first lead of the second half. The charge was sparked by Michelle Maher, Saule Kontautaite and Michele Salvatori 3-pointers as well as two free throws from Luke.
Eastern responded by going on an 8-0 run and extending its lead back to seven with 15 minutes remaining. Over the final six minutes it was all Western, holding the Panthers - a team it lost to last year in Charleston by 33 points - to just two points down the stretch. Western eventually tied the game with 3:38 left in regulation with a Maher layin.
The Panthers (5-5) regained the advantage on a Kelsey Wyss jumper, but a Reed layup knotted the contest once again. With 57 seconds left on the clock, Luke hit the eventual game-winner. Jordyne Crunk missed a lay-up with 42 seconds left, then Western with eight seconds left following a missed basket saw Kontautaite cause a turnover following an EIU rebound. She knocked it into the hands of Salvatori, and the team was able to dribble out the final seconds to secure the victory.
"We've had some big wins here at Western, thinking about the Oakland game and the Oral Roberts game," said head coach JD Gravina. "I've had some big wins at other levels I've been at. That may be the biggest win that I have been a part of and probably the most proud I have ever been of my team. A lot of people don't realize how good Eastern Illinois is. They returned just about everyone from last year. We came out here and grinded it out against a great basketball team and came out two points on top."
The first half was a battle that consisted of six lead changes and seven ties. The Panthers started the scoring with a layup in the first minute of play, but Rebecca Henricson answered with a three to give Western its first lead of the contest. Following another Eastern layin, Salvatori hit a three-pointer to stake a 6-4 advantage.
The contest remained tied or in favor of the Leathernecks until the 12:52 mark when Eastern recorded another layup. However, Charnelle Reed answered with a three just 10 seconds later to put Western back on top. A Kontautaite layup, Reed jumper and a Jackie Rieger free throw gave Western a four-point lead, its largest of the first half.
Western kept the Panthers at bay until the 3:33 mark when Eastern hit a three-pointer to take the lead. Their offense outscored the Leathernecks 16-6 in the remainder of the half and headed into the locker room with a 43-35 advantage.
Four Leathernecks reached double figures in points with Reed pacing the squad with 16 points. Kontautaite and Luke added 15 apiece, while Salvatori contributed 10 points. Luke's 15 points marks a career- and season-high.
Maher, Henricson and Reed each pulled down a team-high four rebounds. Henricson also led the team in assists with four.
Western shot 45.2 percent from the field in the contest, while Eastern shot 49.1 percent.
The Leathernecks return to their
home court in Western Hall for a matchup against Bradley on Friday (Dec. 21).
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.