When I really got hooked into the Mid-Majority community three years ago, I resolved to go to at least one college arena every year that I had never been to and normally wouldn't have a good reason to go to. At the beginning of this season, I had pinpointed a weekend where Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky both had home games, and had decided that would be my "out of character trip" for this season. Unfortunately, an overnight ice storm and a general lack of funding for a hotel room postponed those plans.
Then it was noted on the message board that neither Eastern Kentucky nor Eastern Illinois had been covered this season, and they were playing each other on Saturday. I checked the weekend weather and it looked promising enough for me to make the 150-mile trek to Richmond, Ken., and back.
While the drive is almost completely interstate highway, it's not the most pleasant experience. Travelling I-71 or I-75 from Ohio to Kentucky requires crossing "The Bridge of Death," otherwise known as the Brent Spence Bridge. Opened in 1963, it has been labeled "functionally obsolete" and "unsafe" by the U.S. Government. President Obama made a speech in front of it touting infrastructure spending. The bridge has no shoulders to pull off onto if your car breaks down or you have an accident, carries twice as much traffic per day as it is designed to, and has had chunks of concrete fall from its upper deck to the lower deck.
(Photo from foxbusiness.com)
Once you get across the bridge, you have to deal with the infamous "Cut in the Hill," a steep grade of 400 feet of elevation change in a four-mile stretch that will tax your brakes or transmission depending on direction of travel. and 45 miles of Kentucky foothill nothingness between the Southern reaches of Cincinnati and the Northern reaches of Lexington. During daylight hours, it's a fairly nice drive, but at nighttime with a somewhat unreliable car that has already failed me once this season on the way to a game, definitely a bit nerve-wracking.
I was slightly familiar with both teams. My oddball trip last year was to Lantz Arena at Eastern Illinois, so I had seen them play before. And my cousin, who is a junior in high school, is getting looks from some Division I schools, including Eastern Kentucky. So it was fun to see a little bit of EKU's facilities.
For those who have been shocked by Division I box offices that do not take debit/credit cards for ticket sales, you can add Eastern Kentucky to the list. Thankfully, with upper seatback tickets only $10 and general admission bleachers $8, that isn't too much of a concern. Upper seatback may sound daunting, but in reality, the lower seatback sections only consist of five rows or so, so it's definitely not a nosebleed seat. Interesting that the upper seatback chairs are only on one side of the arena, a general admission bleacher is the exact same seat on the other side. So you can save a couple of bucks if you don't mind sitting on a bench with no back.
When you walk into Alumni Coliseum and McBrayer Arena (the main arena being named after Paul McBrayer, who was an All-American at Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky's winningest coach), you can't help but notice a few things. First of all, the arched wooden roof with large wooden trusses is very impressive. EKU claims it's the largest in the world and it gives the arena a very open feel, where you would think every seat would be a good one.
Second, perhaps because the ceiling is so high off the court, or perhaps lighting wasn't as big a priority in 1963 when the place was built, the arena is very dim. Not just in the seating areas, like at Millett Hall, but everywhere. All of the photos in this recap have been cranked on the brightness scale.
Last was the complete absence of a band. It's not unusual for a school to not have a band during break, but EKU was the first school I've been to that didn't have a band at all. The result was an eclectic mix of canned music that tried to reach all audiences but satisfied none. It's a bit jarring to hear Big & Rich followed by Usher & Lil' Jon. And there was lots of Rihanna. "Disturbia," check. "We Found Love," check. "Umbrella," check.
The teams were desperate then, as for one, it would be the last game of the year. The Ohio Valley Conference only invites the top eight teams to Nashville for "Music City Madness," and the loser of this game would fail to make the top eight. That also meant it was senior night for the three Eastern Kentucky seniors, Joshua Jones, Jaron Jones, and Jeff Allgood. All three would get nice framed photos of themselves, but only the two Joneses (no relation) would get the start.
There was a very good tempo to the game. Whether that was from the desperation of the two teams or the fact that neither team is very good at defense, as both squads are giving up 1.07 points per possession this season, I'm not sure. Both teams broke double figures in the first six minutes and were quite adept at shooting superhoops. The referees only called 12 fouls, which resulted in 14 free throws. And there were eight lead changes and three ties in the first half. But with 5:15 left in the first half, Joshua Jones hit a three, and then Jaron Jones followed with a layup after an Eastern Illinois turnover. Suddenly, Eastern Kentucky had a seven-point lead.
Tastefully named Eastern Illinois coach Mike Miller called timeout to try to stop the run. Usually not that big of a deal, but Miller had already used two timeouts earlier in the half, both near the time of media timeouts, so the Panthers would only have two timeouts remaining for the second half. The timeout provided momentary relief, but the Colonels would extend the lead to 11 by halftime, 42-31.
It was hard to let up, some things are hard to let go. The Jones boys of Eastern Kentucky didn't want to let go of their careers. In the second half, they would score the Colonels' first 11 points and extend the EKU lead to 18. Coach Miller was forced to burn another timeout, leaving him with only one left. This would give Eastern Kentucky's superfan another time to get crazy. A woman in her 40s occupies a seat in the front road of Section 103 near the visitor bench, and she will stand and clap along to the canned PA music during every timeout. She will also give her input to the officials on every call against EKU, no matter how obvious the call or the score line.
EIU would never get the lead under 10 for the rest of the game. The only drama in the last 17 minutes of the contest would occur at a media timeout, when a lucky fan and the Colonel mascot would engage in a battle of tic-tac-toe.
The Mid-Majority has previously established that cows suck at basketball. Well, mascots aren't any better at tic-tac-toe. Unlike in Wargames, where Joshua says the only winning move in tic-tac-toe is not to play, playing a mascot is totally a winning move. The Colonel was easily defeated, with the winner placing the winning "EKU" in the center square for a diagonal win.
Some things are never enough, and Eastern Illinois' Jeremy Granger didn't want to see his career end either. He put up an amazing effort in vain. From the field, he went 10-for-14, including 4-for-4 from deep. His 26 points, 19 in the second half, couldn't rally the Panthers. Joshua and Jaron Jones would get a well-deserved ovation in the final minute when they checked out after combining for 50 points on the night. But Granger was left on the court to hit one last superhoop at the buzzer to make the score seem a bit more respectable. EKU 86, EIU 74.
For Eastern Kentucky, they will get one more chance, to try to save their soul and the chance to navigate a four-game, stagger-bracket gauntlet in Nashville. Everything is possible in Championship Fortnight. Remember, last year's national champion won five games in an above the red-line conference tournament.
For Eastern Illinois, a long, long road and six-hour bus ride back to Charleston, Illinois will give the returning Panthers a chance to reflect on the season past and how to improve before turning in their equipment. Next season starts now, and everyone is back to 0-0. Unfortunately for Granger, L.C. Doss, Nick McFarlin and Zavier Sanders, that chance won't include them. Neither will it include Coach Miller, who found out Monday that EIU would not be renewing his contract. He tried to make the program the way he thought it should be. But chances run out when you only win 75 games over seven seasons in charge. Coach Miller will be at the Final Four and NABC convention, unfortunately like many other coaches, looking to hang on to a game that has hurt them. He only can hope for maybe one more chance.
at EASTERN KENTUCKY 86, EASTERN ILLINOIS 74 02/25/2012
EASTERN ILLINOIS 12-17 (5-11) -- J. Granger 10-14 2-4 26; J. Miller 3-9 4-4 13; A. Akers 1-2 0-0 2; A. McKinnie 3-7 8-8 14; L. Doss 1-5 1-2 4; Z. Sanders 3-3 0-0 6; T. Jones 1-2 0-0 3; J. Hollowell 2-3 2-2 6; N. McFarlin 0-1 0-0 0; J. Piper 0-1 0-0 0; M. Woods 0-0 0-0 0; M. Herron 0-0 0-0 0; A. Lubsey 0-0 0-0 0; J. Miller 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-47 17-20 74. EASTERN KENTUCKY 16-15 (7-9) -- J. Jones 7-14 8-9 23; D. Riggs 7-12 1-2 16; J. Jones 10-14 3-5 27; M. DiNunno 2-5 1-1 5; J. Johnson 1-2 1-2 3; E. Stutz 3-4 0-0 6; J. Newby 1-3 0-0 2; J. Allgood 1-2 0-0 3; T. Filipek 0-0 1-4 1; T. Knipp 0-2 0-0 0; R. Parsons 0-0 0-0 0; R. Stenzel 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 32-58 15-23 86.
Three-point goals: EIU 9-17 (J. Hollowell 0-1; J. Granger 4-4; T. Jones 1-2; L. Doss 1-4; J. Miller 3-6), EKU 7-15 (J. Jones 4-5; J. Allgood 1-2; J. Jones 1-2; J. Newby 0-1; T. Knipp 0-2; D. Riggs 1-3); Rebounds: EIU 27 (J. Granger 5), EKU 27 (D. Riggs 7); Assists: EIU 13 (A. Akers 6), EKU 16 (M. DiNunno 4); Total Fouls -- EIU 18, EKU 15; Fouled Out: EIU-None; EKU-None.