CHARLESTON — There's no doubt the bars in Charleston did a blockbuster business Friday night.
Eastern Illinois University basketball fans were beside themselves as a sellout crowd at Lantz Gym witnessed a second-half outburst that carried the Panthers to an 80-67 victory over Illinois. It was an exhibition game played for charity with the proceeds going to the American Red Cross to support hurricane relief efforts.
And it was Eastern that blew past the Illini with a blizzard of made shots and forced turnovers in a stunning second half.
Illinois led by 11 in the first half and by four at halftime before Eastern flipped the script. The Panthers shot a blistering 61 percent in the second half including 6-of-9 from 3-point range. And for the night they made 19 of 21 free throws.
“We made jump shots and they didn’t,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said.
But it was more than that. While Eastern soared in the second half, the Illini wilted badly. Illinois became a frustrated basketball team that coughed up 15 second-half turnovers.
Illini coach Brad Underwood detailed his disappointment, but not before walking into Spoonhour’s news conference and saying, “God, dang, let’s go have a beer.”
At the heart of Underwood’s disappointment was that Eastern played with more effort, especially in the second half.
“I take a lot of pride in our teams playing hard and we got totally outplayed and outhustled,” Underwood said. “We never got on the floor for a loose ball.
“We played pretty, like a finesse team. And that’s not one thing I’m about. That’s on me. We’ll get that corrected. At halftime we had one rebound from two guys who have played in the Big Ten a lot (Leron Black and Michael Finke). That will tell you what our effort was about.”
The game was also about Eastern’s grit and execution.
The turnaround actually began in the first half after the Illini had taken a 28-17 lead. Eastern could have flinched there, but did not. And when Ray Crossland hit a 3-pointer late, Illinois’ halftime lead was just 42-38.
It didn’t take Eastern long to catch fire in the second half.
Illinois extended its lead to 45-40 before Eastern started raining in jump shots and leaping into passing lanes to force Illini turnovers. During one three-and-a-half minute stretch in the second half, the Illini committed seven turnovers.
“The last thing I told them before we took the court is, ‘You’d better go out and play them tonight because they’re not coming back next week,” Spoonhour said. “We’ll play a lot of times and the bleachers are not filled up. That was an environment they’ve never seen.”
Eastern took a 46-45 lead when Montell Goodwin hit a 3-pointer and after two Illini turnovers D’Angelo Jackson scored on the baseline to extend the lead. All of a sudden, the Eastern fans were roaring.
They never stopped roaring.
While Eastern was shooting 61 percent in the second half, Illinois shot 34.6 percent. Five Eastern players scored in double figures led by Muusa Dama and Goodwin, who had 14 each.
Meanwhile, Kipper Nichols led the Illini with 16 points and nine rebounds but just two of his points came after halftime. Mark Smith scored 15.
Nichols, who had already heard Underwood’s unpleasant postgame remarks in the team locker room, was asked how he thought practice would go this week as the Illini prepare to open the season at home Friday night against Southern.
“I don’t even want to think about that yet,” he said.
Underwood said he was grateful to have played the game in the roaring noise of Lantz Gym.
“We’re on the road in a great atmosphere,” he said. “That’s hard to recreate.
“We didn’t have a good week of practice. Mark Smith had the best week of practice after playing poorly in our last scrimmage. And he was terrific today, other than (two) turnovers. It’s moments like today that you find out things through adversity.”