EDWARDSVILLE — After blazing out of the gate, Southern Illinois University faded down the stretch Saturday.
Juniors Chris Olivier and Reggie Smith scored 19 points apiece, senior Sherman Blanford had 13 points and 14 rebounds and sophomore Alex Austin had 13 points and three key 3-pointers as Eastern Illinois downed the Cougars 78-74 before 2,096 at Vadalabene Center.
SIUE was unable to protect a 10-0 lead and suffered its second consecutive home loss in its Ohio Valley Conference finale. The Panthers, meanwhile, clinched a berth in the OVC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., where they will be joined by the Cougars.
The tournament will be held Wednesday through Saturday at Municipal Auditorium.
"I thought our guys did a good job as far as coming out with lots of energy," SIUE coach Lennox Forrester said. "Eastern Illinois did a great job as far as counter-punching our effort and our start."
The Cougars (11-19, 7-9 OVC) got double-figure scoring from five players, led by sophomore Donivine Stewart (15), who also had six assists. Senior Tim Johnson and junior Keaton Jackson had 12 points apiece, junior Kris Davis had 11 and senior Ray Lester had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
SIUE shot 50 percent from the field (29-for-58). However, the Cougars were atrocious from the free-throw line, where they finished at 39 percent (9-for-23).
"Our free throws hurt us in the basketball game," Forrester said. "Shooting 39 percent from the free-throw line for a game, that's not very good. That's an everyday (practice) thing. We always talk about how important it is. I can't understand it. We'll have guys step up to the line and miss the first one and it has a trickle effect."
Eastern Illinois (11-18, 7-9) led 31-26 at halftime as the 6-foot-8 Olivier went wild in the paint with 12 points. The Cougars rallied to tie the game at 41 when Jackson converted back-to-back baskets 49 seconds apart.
But freshman Zach Dickerson's free throw sparked a 7-0 run that gave the Panthers the lead for good at 48-41 at the 10:36 mark. Eastern's final two points of the drive, free throws by Smith, came after Forrester received a technical for a no-call as the Cougars controlled a rebound.
"As a coach, you're trying to fight to stay in the basketball game," Forrester said. "Sometimes you overdo it. Did I deserve it? Probably so. ... Those are things as a coach you've got to do. You've got to fight to win basketball games."
The Cougars got within three points with 9:18 to play and on three occasions were within four, but couldn't overcome Eastern's 31-for-41 showing on free throws led by Smith's 15-for-17 effort. The Panthers had 15 free throws in the final 1:44.
"We thought we had to win; at least that's the way we were approaching it," said Panthers coach Jay Spoonhour, the son of late St. Louis University coach Charlie Spoonhour. "It ended up that's how it worked out. We did have to win or we wouldn't have gotten in (the OVC Tournament).
"When you know you have to go win a game and then you do it, it makes you feel pretty good."
Spoonhour credited the work in the blocks by Olivier, whose performance put the Panthers on solid ground after a shaky start. Olivier also grabbed nine rebounds.
"Sometimes when he gets the ball, you're not exactly sure what's coming, which is hard for the defense to probably figure out what to do," Spoonhour said. "Nobody, probably including him, knows exactly what move is coming. He is hard to guard in there with the herky-jerky stuff. Scoring over (6-10) Keaton Jackson isn't easy."
Forrester also recognized Olivier's strong work.
"He's a very talented basketball player," he said. "He's long; he shoots over our guys. He can dribble out of (traps). He causes havoc for us. Blanford, too. Blanford is just a man. That's how he's played all season long."
SIUE lost junior guard Maurice Wiltz to a right-shoulder injury less than five minutes into the game. Wiltz was fouled as he drove the lane and landed hard on the shoulder.
He took both ensuing free throws, making the second, before departing and never returning.
"I'm not sure exactly about the extent of his injury," Forrester said.