EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Ray Lester finished senior night with his first career double-double and fellow seniors Tim Johnson and Christian Salecich combined for 17 points and three three-pointers Saturday, but it wasn't enough. Eastern Illinois defeated SIUE 78-74 in the final game of the regular season for both teams.
SIUE and EIU will move on to next week's Ohio Valley Conference Tournament in Nashville, Tenn. SIUE finished the regular season 7-9 in the OVC and 11-19 overall. Eastern Illinois also is 7-9 in the OVC and 11-18 overall.
The Cougars will have the No. 8 seed in the OVC Tournament. SIUE will take on No. 5 seed Tennessee Tech in a first round game Wednesday at 6 p.m.
SIUE opened the game on a 10-0 run, including five points from Johnson who had a three-pointer and a dunk. Following an Eastern Illinois timeout, the Panthers slowly worked back in the game. Chris Olivier's jumper with 3:31 left in the half put EIU on top for the first time at 25-24.
"I thought our guys came out with great energy, but Eastern Illinois did a great job of countering us," SIUE Head Coach Lennox Forrester said.
The visitors took a 31-26 lead into the break.
SIUE against started hot in the second half, using a 9-4 run to tie the score 35-35 with 17:03 to play. SIUE also tied the score at 41-41 after a Keaton Jackson layup with 14:19 left but never could overtake the Panthers. EIU built its lead to as much as nine points on several occasions.
Free throw shooting proved to be the difference as Eastern Illinois was able to seal the win thanks to outstanding free throw shooting late. The Panthers sank 13 of 14 attempts from the free throw line in the game's final 1:10. SIUE was a season-worst 9 of 23 (39.1 percent) from the stripe.
"Our free throw shooting hurt us," Forrester said. "When you shoot 39 percent from the line, that's not going to get it done."
Lester scored 10 points and added a career-best 11 rebounds for his first career double-double. Johnson finished with 12 points and was 2 of 3 from three-point range. Donivine Stewart scored 15 points and added six assists. Keaton Jackson (12) and Kris Davis (11) also finished in double figure scoring.
Chris Olivier and Reggie Smith led EIU with 19 points apiece. Olivier added nine rebounds and four blocks.
"Olivier is a great basketball player," Forrester added. "He can shoot over guys, and he does a good job of dribbling out of double teams."
Sherman Blanford and Alex Austin each scored 13 points. Blanford hauled in a game-high 14 rebounds.