Panthers’ home success mirrors NIT season

The last time the Eastern women’s basketball team won its first three games at home, they cracked the postseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

That’s right, Eastern steamrolled the opposition in all three of its games at Lantz Arena thus far (not including the exhibition against Illinois Wesleyan).

Even before the Thanksgiving holiday, the Panthers had their fill.

After all, what beats home cooking?

Currently a tad shy of first in the conference, Eastern, so long as its players remain healthy, runs little risk of drowning in the OVC playoff contention pool, though the NIT is an entirely different ordeal.

In order to gain passage to that promised land which the Panthers have been absent from since the 2013 season, Eastern must either be an Ohio Valley Conference standout, or, perhaps most challenging of all, impress the selection committee based on their own unique merits.

Half of the 64 eligible teams will reserve a seat in the NIT solely on the basis of their conference win total.

This is how teams get into the tournament on an automatic berth, unless, as it so often turns out, a school has already been tabbed as a qualifier for the NCAA Tournament, in which case the next best squad takes their place. 

That was, to be frank, the reason Eastern found its way to the NIT in 2012.

Six years ago, Eastern came in at second. Tennessee-Martin, the number one team in the conference that year, was nominated for the NCAA Tournament.  Taking first or second place honors in the OVC, or really in any conference, is sincerely an endeavor of fulfillment.  

So even if the Panthers do not reach first, a second place finish could be a nice consolation prize.

Some would contend that early season success at home does not provide the faintest hint as to where a particular team might sit come time for the postseason.

They entirely miss the point.

While Eastern’s wins do not hold as much gravity as, say, those in late January or February, such triumphs can, nevertheless, foretell a promising future.

When the NIT sent Eastern an invitation to participate in March of 2012, the Panthers sealed a matchup with Texas Tech, despite losing three of their final five games.

If ineligible based on the aforementioned criteria, there is still yet another pathway for Eastern to clinch the NIT: at-large berths.

To be chosen for a spot under this provision, prospective tournament frontrunners need to captivate the interests of the committee personnel. 

The NCAA ranking formulas, which help committee members compare and contrast teams that belong to very different basketball ecosystems, are one such measuring tool.

They are not done there.

Degree of difficulty, late season wins and current level of play are just a few examples of some additional benchmarks.

Although a more grueling route to the NIT, the Panthers have the potential to sway this basketball jury if they sustain their momentum.

The team, from the looks of it, has been coalescing quite nicely at this early juncture.

Eastern’s bona fide all-stars, sophomores Karle Pace and Taylor Steele, chipped in 28 and 20 points respectively versus Fort Wayne.

Both players have been thriving across the wide array of skillsets, from three-point shooting to defensive stoppage to points per game.

And, get this, Eastern is holding a tight grip on one of the highest scoring margins in the Ohio Valley Conference, second only to Morehead State.

Talk about current level of play.

The tantalizing possibility of a trip to the WNIT should perk up the heads of the Eastern coaching staff.

Tom O’Connor can be reached at 581-2812 or troconnor@eiu.edu.

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