By JOEY CHAPMAN
For the first time in eight years, Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky faced off in what turned out to be a barn-burner in Bowling Green.
Western wasted no time establishing an advantage, opening up the game with a steal that lead to an easy bucket. The Hilltoppers’ size and speed forced several turnovers and Western quickly grabbed a 13-2 lead over the Colonels.
The Hilltoppers extended its lead to 21-2 with stellar three-point shooting, though Eastern steadily started to claw its way out of the deficit. The Colonels began hitting threes of its own and went on a 20-2 run to make it a 23-20 game with 8:17 left in the first half. The run was fueled by perfect three point shooting efforts from K.J. Bluford (3-3) and Jaylen Babb-Harrison (2-2).
As Western jumped out to a six point lead, Bluford was called for a foul that left him extremely frustrated. After voicing his displeasure on the call, officials issued him a technical foul.
Western’s shooting woes continued and Eastern took advantage of poor defense to fight to a 27-26 lead with 5:25 left.
The teams engaged in a back and forth battle for the rest of the half, with neither team able to establish an advantage. Western managed to edge ahead and the Colonels found itself trailing 39-38 going into the locker room.
Although the second half started with the teams trading baskets, Western would go on a 12-0 run to extend its lead to 55-45. A thunderous slam from from JaVontae Hawkins ended the run with Eastern looking to cut the deficit even shorter.
Eastern turned up the pressure to start forcing mistakes and the Hilltoppers’ lead began dwindling away. After cutting the lead to 60-59, Western used two blocks on defense and two 3-pointers to regain a seven point lead.
In typical Colonel fashion, Eastern showed no quit and continued to battle as the half winded down. Each time the Hilltoppers tried to walk away with the lead, Eastern found a way to keep it close. After a lay-up and a 3-pointer from Hawkins, the Colonels found itself down 76-77 with 3:32 left in the game.
Eastern tied the game at 78 apiece with 2:47 left, though Western quickly got back out to a slim lead.
Jarelle Reischel grabbed a rebound with 35 seconds left, allowing Eastern to set up a play to try to win the game. Hawkins found Reischel, who hit a big shot from three to give Eastern the 84-83 lead with 19 seconds left.
Western immediately called a timeout to draw up one final play. Sophomore Justin Johnson, who was draped by several Colonel defenders, hit a turn-around-fader from three with one second left to give Western a 86-84 lead. Eastern couldn’t hit the 3/4ths court shot at the end and the Hilltoppers just barely topped the Colonels.
JaVontae Hawkins led the way for the Colonels, finishing the game with 17 points and 7 rebounds. Jaylen Babb-Harrison added on 18 points while Jarelle Reischel tagged on 16 points. The Colonels shot 50.8 percent from the field and didn’t turn the ball over once in the second half.
It was a constant fight from the Colonels, and that’s what Coach Dan McHale wanted. He asked his guys to keep punching no matter how much they were down and the team answered the call.
“We went toe to toe with these guys and it shows a lot of heart and a lot of character to be down as much as we were and put ourselves in position to win it,” McHale said post game.
McHale says his team defended the play perfectly and there was nothing they could have done differently in the end.
“I’ve gotta give them credit, [Johnson] hit a tough shot that went in and that’s just the way the ball bounces,” McHale added.
Eastern heads down south to Savannah, Ga., to take on Savannah State University at 8 p.m. on Saturday.