By Todd Purvis/Sports editor
The Colonel basketball team’s season came to an end March 5 when they fell to the top-seeded Governors of Austin Peay in the semi-finals of the conference tournament by a score of 62-57. The loss to Austin Peay marked the third time the Colonels have fallen to the Governors this season.Eastern led for the majority of the first half to give them a 34-32 lead at the break, but a jumper by Austin Peay guard Rhet Wierzba with 19:14 left in the game gave the Governors the lead for good. Eastern cut the lead to one on a number of occasions throughout the second half, but they could never close the gap completely as Austin Peay ended up pulling out the five-point victory.
The Colonels were led in the game by the play of sophomore guard Matt Witt who poured in 23 points, while senior center Jon Bentley scored 11 points and collected eight rebounds. Freshman forward Julian Mascoll tossed in 10 points and grabbed six boards.
The Governors were led by junior guard Anthony Davis who finished with 16 points, while Wierzba finished with 12 points in the game. Senior forward Adrian Henning finished with 10 points and nine rebounds.
Eastern finished the regular season with an overall record of 14-15 and a conference record of 8-8.
“I think we made a lot of strides this year. This is the most games that we’ve won in about 12 years, and this is the best conference record that we’ve had in a long time,” coach Travis Ford said. “We made a lot of strides in the basketball program and obviously played our best basketball at the end of the year, so there’s no question that we made a step upward.”
Eastern’s record improved from last season, when the Colonels finished the season with an overall record of 11-17, and a conference record of 5-11. Last season the Colonels were knocked out of the conference tournament in the first round, once again by Austin Peay, by a score of 83-80.
“It’s always encouraging to have a good year, I told our players that it’s a true case of hard work paying off, from our coaching staff to the players,” Ford said. “If you do things the right way and keep striving to reach your goals and keep working hard, good things happen.”
This season Eastern was led by Witt, the Colonel floor general who averaged 15.6 points and 5.5 assists per game.
“Matt had a very good second half of the year. I thought that he really matured a lot,” Ford said. “We rely on him to do a lot, and he stepped up and gave us a lot.”
Bentley also led the Colonels with 13.4 points and six rebounds per contest.
“Jon Bentley was very consistent throughout the whole year,” Ford said.
Junior forward Michael Haney finished the year averaging 11.3 points and just over six rebounds per outing.
“Michael Haney played well for us this year,” Ford said.
Junior guard Ben Rushing knocked down 68 three pointers on the season and averaged 9.6 points per game.
“Ben Rushing had a great second half of the year,” Ford said.
Ford cited the team’s balance as one of its keys to success.
“This team had great strengths; guys that could rebound, guys that could defend, guys that could score and each player had their own strength and they played up to their strength,” he said.
The Colonels will lose five seniors: Bentley, Mike Scott, Tim Volpenhein, Champ Slaughter and Damian McPherson.
“We’ve got some big spots to fill; we’ve got some serious talent that we’re going to have to replace. Some of our young kids are going to have to step up and play,” Ford said.
Next season, Eastern will return nine players from this year’s team.
“We’ve got some young players that didn’t play a lot this year, like Mike Brock, Brandon Moore and Mamadou because he was injured, but we’ve got some serious basketball players returning,” Ford said.
Ford and the Colonels feel as if they have achieved their goals from this year’s preseason.
“We wanted to get a home seed and be a top-four seed, and we did, and then we made it to Nashville,” Ford said. “This year was very, very encouraging and we definitely took a step forward and hopefully we can continue the progress of heading up the ladder.”