NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Heather Butler sank a go-ahead pull-up jumper with just four seconds remaining this afternoon to lead The University of Tennessee at Martin women’s basketball team past Eastern Illinois 71-69 in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament semifinals at Municipal Auditorium.
With the win today, the Skyhawks (18-14) advance to their third straight OVC tournament championship appearance, as they will play Tennessee Tech at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 9. This will also be the third consecutive matchup between UT Martin and the Golden Eagles for the right to play in the NCAA Tournament, with the Skyhawks winning both of the previous matchups. In the two teams’ lone meeting this season (Jan. 21), UT Martin claimed an 81-63 win over Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
“I think you saw in the second half that fresher legs started to take over,” Skyhawk head coach Kevin McMillan said. “We were down six and we needed to get stops and put the ball in Heather and Jasmine’s hands. Coming down the stretch, they made a lot of tough plays for us.”
Butler’s 24 points led all scorers, as the Medina native also tied a career-high with eight assists and added five rebounds with two steals. She came up big down the stretch, tallying six of UT Martin’s last eight points to help the Skyhawks overcome a six-point deficit with 3:38 to play.
One day after pouring in an OVC tournament record 41 points, Jasmine Newsome compiled her seventh career double-double (23 points, 10 rebounds) – breaking a record for most points in a two-game span in the OVC Tournament (previously set in 2002). Senior Rickiesha Bryant also made a bit of history today, as she recorded 12 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks for her eighth double-double of the season. The four blocks moved Bryant into first place on UT Martin’s single-season blocked shots list with 82, eclipsing the previous mark of 81 set by Mary Kate Long in 1987.
Eastern Illinois (19-11) was led by Mariah King’s 20 points and 10 rebounds. Ta’Kenya Nixon tallied 17 points, seven assists, five rebounds, four blocks and two steals, while Kelsey Wyss and Sydney Mitchell each scored 14 points for the Panthers, who earned the OVC regular season championship.
The Skyhawks torched the nets early, taking a 7-0 lead through the first 3:43. Eastern Illinois would tie the contest at 14-all midway through the first half, but back-to-back layups by Newsome catapulted UT Martin back on top by four with 7:30 to play before the halftime break.
Eastern Illinois battled back to tie the game at 20-20 but the Skyhawks responded with a 7-0 run, capped off with three-pointers on back-to-back possessions by Butler and Sydney Vanlandingham. Two jumpers by Butler in the paint closed out the first half strong for UT Martin, who took a 31-23 advantage into the locker room.
Butler’s 15 points led all scorers at the break, while Nixon, Mitchell and King each accounted for six points to pace the Panthers.
Shelby Crawford canned a trey less than a minute into the second half to extend UT Martin’s lead out to nine (34-25). The Skyhawks led by nine after an old-fashioned three-point play by Bryant at the 16:47 mark, but Eastern Illinois would soon make a run. The Panthers scored nine straight points in a span of 1:27 to tie the game at 41-all until two Bryant free throws willed UT Martin back on top.
The Panthers then went on a 7-0 spurt to take their first lead of the game at the 14:39 mark. The lead changed hands six times in a span of the next six minutes but Eastern Illinois took a 56-51 lead with 6:33 to play.
Newsome then took over, draining a jumper and a three-pointer on back-to-back trips down the floor to tie the game at 56-56 with 5:44 remaining. However, Eastern Illinois responded with an 8-2 run to take a 64-58 advantage at the 3:38 mark.
Layups by Bryant and Butler sliced the Skyhawk deficit to two with 2:52 left, but a pair of Eastern Illinois free throws pushed the Panther lead out to 66-62 just 29 seconds later. Crawford then nailed a huge three-pointer from the left wing to get UT Martin within one point and 34 seconds later, a pair of Butler free throws made the score 67-67.
With the score still knotted at 67-all, Butler drained a jumper in the paint at the 1:04 mark, but Eastern Illinois scored on its next possession resulted in the seventh tie of the game at 69-69.
Each team then turned the ball over until the ball found itself in Butler’s hands, as her 15-foot jumper gave the Skyhawks their first lead since the 11:11 mark. Eastern Illinois had a chance to tie the game but Nixon’s layup rimmed out.