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Cougars Drop OVC Contest at Eastern Illinois

Ray Lester grabs a rebound
Ray Lester grabs a rebound

CHARLESTON, Ill. – Eastern Illinois freshman Jake Verhagen knocked down three-point baskets on back-to-back possessions late in the second half Saturday to vault the Panthers to a 76-70 win over SIUE in Ohio Valley Conference men's basketball at Lantz Arena.

The loss snapped a two-game winning streak for the Cougars, who had won four of their last five games. SIUE dropped to 4-5 in the OVC and 8-15 overall. Eastern Illinois improved to 5-5 in the OVC to leap-frog the Cougars into second half place in the OVC West Division.

Verhagen's consecutive three-pointers took the Panthers from down four at 63-59 to up two at 65-63. It was the Panther's first lead of the second half, and a lead they would not relinquish. Zach Dickerson hit a jumper from the lane with 1:37 left capping off a 10-0 run by the home team to make it 69-53.

"For us to win in any game in OVC play we have to play for 40 minutes," SIUE Head Coach Lennox Forrester said. "Tonight we probably played 35."

SIUE led 35-30 at half after shooting 50 percent (13-26) from the field for the period. The Cougars extended their lead immediately to start the second half and pushed the lead to nine points when Donivine Stewart collected a steal and pushed the ball ahead for Rozell Nunn. Nunn scooped the shot up and in to give SIUE a 51-42 lead with 13:18 to play.  

EIU chipped away at SIUE's lead, each time the Cougars able to push it out again. The Panthers had cut the lead to four points when Kris Davis drained a three from the left side to make it 54-37. Davis led SIUE with 17 points. He was 6 of 11 from the field, including 5 of 8 from three-point range.

EIU's Sherman Blanford cut it back to five points with a layup before Donivine Stewart pushed it back to eight (57-49) with 11 minutes to play. Stewart finished with seven points, five assists, and a career-high six steals.

Keaton Jackson was 6 of 8 from the field to finish with 16 points for the Cougars. Ray Lester scored a career-best 11 points and added seven rebounds, which led the team.

For the game, SIUE connected on 26 of 57 shots (45.6 percent). Eastern Illinois was 26-55 (47.3 percent) from the floor. The Panthers outrebounded SIUE 37-27.

Blanford led all scorers with a career-high 24 points, including 18 second half-points. He also hauled in a game-high 13 rebounds.

"They played way tougher than we did down the stretch," Forrester added. "Blanford was a beast down low. We didn't have an answer for him-he had nine offensive rebounds."

Reggie Smith (17 points) and Chris Olivier (12) were the only other Eastern Illinois players in double figures.

SIUE returns home for a two-game stretch with Southeast Missouri and UT Martin, Thursday and Saturday respectively.

"This is not the way we wanted to start the second half of the OVC season, but there are seven more games to be played," Forrester said. "We have to put it back together and get some wins."

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