EDWARDSVILLE — Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's mission was clear Saturday: The Cougars needed a win to qualify for the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
It wasn't easy, but SIUE realized its goal in a 67-58 victory over Eastern Illinois at Vadalabene Center.
"We've been inconsistent quite often this season," said Cougars coach Paula Buscher, whose team has won four in a row and six of seven. "We've got on a roll late, and I credit that to our players and our seniors stepping up and not wanting their season to end.
"They were ready to go, but the biggest key was I didn't want them to be too anxious about this; I didn't want them to be too excited about it because there's a point where that emotion tips you over and you start performing poorly."
Pairings for the OVC Tournament, to be held Wednesday through Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., will be released late Saturday. The Cougars will make their second consecutive appearance in the tournament.
Freshman Micah Jones led the Cougars (11-18 overall, 7-9 OVC) with 17 points and eight rebounds. Senior Ashley Capotosto contributed 13 points and eight rebounds and senior Jazmin Hill, an Althoff High graduate, scored 12 points off the bench. Sophomore Coco Moore gave SIUE four players in double figures with 11 points.
"I thought we just went out there and played," said Hill, who guarded her former teammate at Althoff, senior Jordyne Crunk. "I told the team at halftime, 'Just go out here and play. Let's just play basketball and see what happens at the end.'"
The Cougars, who led 30-29 at halftime courtesy of Hill's buzzer-beating 3-pointer, outrebounded the Panthers 44-32 and outscored them 23-5 on second-chance points. They avenged a 71-61 loss to Eastern on Feb. 1 in Charleston despite a shoddy 17-for-29 performance from the free-throw line.
"We could have relaxed a lot more if our free throws weren't so magnified," Buscher said. "Being a coach, I'm not happy with our free throws. We've got to do some things there."
The Cougars held a 42-33 lead after junior Tierny Austin scored with 14:26 to play in the game. The Panthers (12-15, 7-9), however, reeled off the next 10 points to take a 43-42 lead at the 11:22 mark.
But with the contest knotted at 53, SIUE took over with a 10-0 spree of its own that gave it a 63-53 advantage with 1:42 left. Jones led the parade with six points, while Moore had a baseline drive and Hill canned two free throws.
"It feels good to edge them out on our Senior Night and to get done what we needed to get done to get ourselves to the tournament," Capotosto said. "We needed to get ourselves in."
Crunk led Eastern with 16 points, but was 5-for-16 from the field. Junior Sabina Oroszova battled foul difficult but had a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Freshman Erica Brown, a Nashville High graduate from Hoyleton, had 10 points, as did senior Morgan Palombizio.
"You've got to credit SIUE," Panthers coach Debbie Black said. "They outworked us, they outhustled us. Really, the bottom line is they wanted the game more than we did."
Blank, whose team also is in the OVC Tournament, bemoaned the Cougars' dominance in the paint that led to their second-chance bonanza.
"That's the most telling stat," Black said. "That really pretty much sums it up. You can't get outworked. To their credit, they wanted it more and they won on their Senior Night, so congratulations to them."
The Cougars shot 40 percent from the field (23-for-58), slightly better than Eastern's 39 percent (22-for-57). The Panthers were 11-for-12 from the free-throw line, but were outscored by five as they had 17 fewer opportunities.
"I think it's huge," Buscher said of a return trip to the OVC Tournament. "Everything's a one-and-done scenario. For us, we want to keep playing as many days as we can and go as deep as we can. It's great for the younger players for experience, because they will always want more. And it's huge for our seniors to be able to be able to finish off their careers like they have the last couple of weeks."