By Michael Padgett

A foul sent Southeast Missouri State to the free-throw line with four-tenths of a second left on the clock in a tied ball game to end Eastern’s 2006-07 season on a bitter note. But, eight months later, it’s all ancient history as the Lady Colonels are about to embark on a mission to prove they’re better than the preseason poll indicates.”I took it very personal,” Coach Larry Joe Inman said.

Inman is beginning his 20th year as women’s basketball coach at Eastern and said he feels his team was more competitive than its 12-18 (9-11 OVC) record indicates.

“I felt like we had the best team in the conference at the end of last year,” Inman said. And he said this year’s team is much improved.

“I think we’re a better team defensively than this time last year. We’re not as consistent as we need to be, but I’m fully confident. They’re a completely different team. Their whole mental approach is totally different (and) we have more depth.”

Eastern’s three returning seniors provide the strength and enthusiasm for this year’s team, he said.

“We’re really excited with these three seniors…they’re the hub that turns the wheel,” Inman said.

Senior guard Crystal Jones, named to the preseason all-conference team, led the Lady Colonels’ offense last season with 16.1 points per game, 68 offensive rebounds and 107 assists in her first season at Eastern.

Senior guard Niki Avery also performed well last year in her first season as a Lady Colonel. Avery finished second on the team in scoring (11.5 points per game) and first in assists (117). Her three-point field goals per game average (2.67) led the conference and ranked 17th in the country.

Senior guard Ashley Cazee led the team in steals (68) and averaged 11.4 points per game. Cazee begins her fourth season at Eastern where she has scored more than 1,000 points in 85 games.

Three small guards with big shoulders could be the key to Eastern’s success this season.

“They have to be leaders.I think we’re going to be dependent on them and . we’re counting on them to step up. We’re excited about what they bring to the table,” Inman said.

The seniors know what’s expected of them and they’re up to it.

“We have our scissors to cut the net. We’re seniors and we’re going out with a game,” Avery said.

Three underclassmen return from last year’s team to help achieve that mission.

Sophomore forward Colette Cole, who led Kentucky high school girls in scoring two seasons ago, played in all 30 games last year, averaging more than three points and three rebounds per game.

Injury limited sophomore guard Laechia Conley to playing only seven games last season. But she is two years removed from a high-school season where she averaged 11.9 points and 9.3 rebounds.

Sophomore center Shavonne Jones returns from an injury-hampered season as well. Jones averaged 4.3 points and 2.5 rebounds per game last year.

Three transfer students and five freshmen complete the Lady Colonels’ roster.

Junior center Latonyah Bentley joins Eastern from Moberly (Missouri) Area Community College where she averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds last season.

Junior forward Latanya Stokes was Bentley’s teammate last season at Moberly and averaged 12.3 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Junior guard Ilona Muszak transfers from Clarendon (Texas) College where she averaged 15 points per game the past two seasons. Muszak shot 54 percent from three-point range last year, hitting 59 shots in 13 games.

Freshman guard Cassie Kilgore excelled as a senior at Marion County High School last season. Kilgore averaged 21 points, 4 assists and 3 steals per game in Jasper, Tenn. last year.

Freshman guard Jessica Streater led Harding University High School in Charlotte, N.C. to a 26-4 record last year. The All-Star Girls Report ranked her one of the top 100 point guards in the country.

Freshman Lindsey Waters was selected regional player of the year, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds per game. Waters graduated from McCreary Central High School last year as the all-time leading scorer with 2,074 points.

All-State freshman forward Cherie White averaged 17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 4.1 steals and 3.3 assists last year at Warner Robins High School in Bonaire, Ga.

Freshman forward Nadia Mossong rounds out the Eastern roster. A Luxembourg native, Mossong competed this September on the national team in qualifying games attempting to earn a spot in the Olympics.

After an intra-squad scrimmage Tuesday night during the Halloween Hoopfest at Alumni Coliseum, the Lady Colonels are ready to start playing games that count and begin their quest for a title.

“We expect to win a championship. We talk about it every day,'” Inman said.

Mission impossible? Not if the senior class has anything to say about it.

“I see a ring,” Avery said.