Coach Lennox Forrester and his Southern Illinois University Edwardsville men's basketball team took a step in the right direction this season.
The Cougars are in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament for the first time and will play Tennessee Tech in the opening round at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.
SIUE (11-19) is seeded eighth; the Golden Eagles (16-15), seeded fifth, had a 21-point lead but barely held on to defeat the Cougars 64-63 in the teams' only other meeting Jan. 11 in Cookeville.
"We're very, very excited reaching one of our goals this year, and that was to play in the OVC Tournament," said Forrester, whose squad enters the competition with four losses in its last five contests. "I know our team is excited about it, but we're definitely not excited about how we finished out down the stretch.
"We see it as a new season for us and a great opportunity to continue to do some really good things this year and build upon what we've already done by getting into the tournament. ... Hopefully, we can get back on track."
The Cougars closed the regular season with a pair of Vadalabene Center losses, first to league champion Belmont (94-75) and then to Eastern Illinois (78-74) on Saturday. The loss to Belmont ended SIUE's six-game home winning streak.
The Golden Eagles have been playing their best basketball of the season with six wins in their last eight games. Forrester has taken notice of their surge, but he isn't sure what to expect from Tennessee Tech since it's been nearly two months since the teams played one another.
"That was our fourth game in conference, so it feels like we haven't played them for a long, long time --or they're brand new," Forrester said. "We've got to try and get used to them. They're a very, very good team. They've been playing really well down the stretch."
The Cougars got within one point of Tennessee Tech in the Jan. 11 game when sophomore Donivine Stewart dropped in a layup with 20 seconds to play. Tennessee Tech freshman Shirmane Thomas then missed two free throws, giving the Cougars a final chance.
SIUE junior Maurice Wiltz got the ball to Stewart, who weaved through the lane but couldn't connect on a fingertip layup. Senior Ray Lester's putback attempt also was no good and the buzzer sounded, ending a frustrating possession for the Cougars.
"The first time we played them, they were trying to figure things out," Forrester said. "I think we were trying to do the same thing, too. But as I watch them on film, you can see how much better they've gotten than the first time we played. Not so much from a talent standpoint, but execution offensively and defensively."
The Tennessee Tech-SIUE winner will advance to the quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Thursday and meet No. 4 seeded Morehead State. The Cougars lost to Morehead State 70-63 on Jan. 2 in Edwardsville.
The semifinals are at 6:30 and 9 p.m. Friday. Top seeds Belmont, led by conference Player of the Year J.J. Mann, and Murray State had two byes to reach the semifinals. The championship game will be at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2. The tourney champion will receive an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee Tech coach Steve Payne did not participate in the OVC teleconference Monday and was unavailable for comment.
Both SIUE and Tennessee Tech have offensive balance.
The Cougars are led by Stewart's 12.2 points per game. The 6-foot Stewart also has a 2.32 assist-to-turnover ratio (135-58). Keaton Jackson, an ever-improving 6-10 junior, averages 9.3 points and has 63 blocked shots, and 6-2 junior Kris Davis chips in with 9.1 points per outing.
Maurice Wiltz, another 6-2 junior, tops the Cougars in 3-pointers with 48. But Wiltz is questionable for the game with a right-shoulder injury, suffered in the first half of the game against Eastern when he crashed onto the floor after being fouled.
Wiltz, who shot the two free throws and then exited the game for good, was noticeably favoring the arm after the final buzzer.
"He got some treatment (Sunday)," Forrester said. "He couldn't lift his arm above his shoulder. It's going to take a lot of treatment to get him ready for Wednesday."
The Golden Eagles' top scorers are 6-7 senior Dennis Ogbe (10.8 points), 6-8 junior Dwan Caldwell (10.7) and 5-10 senior Jeremia Samarrippas (10.3). Samarrippas has 55 3-pointers and 145 assists.
"Samarrippas is their point guard, their leader," Forrester said. "He gets guys involved. He can score by driving it or score from 3. As of late, we're giving up so many points in the paint. We've got to do a tremendous job on Caldwell and Ogbe and their interior post players."