Loyola got up big early and held off a tough Eastern Illinois team to take home a 73-62 victory and remain perfect on the season. The Ramblers led by as many as 23 points in the first and while the Panthers got within nine with 15:12 remaining Loyola kept the advantage at a safe distance the remainder of the game.
Jim Whitesell thought the run would come at the end of the first half, but Eastern Illinois had other ideas, going on a 7-2 run in the final five minutes of the first half.
"We really hoped we could do it the last four minutes of the first half and then they did the exact thing," said Loyola (4-0) head coach Jim Whitesell. "[The players] went into halftime feeling bad, but we were still up 15 and held them to 23 points."
Eastern Illinois (0-3) came into the game without a victory, but the Panthers are picked third in the Ohio Valley Conference and have two talented scoring guards in Tyler Laser (20 points tonight) and Jeremy Granger (18 points). The Ramblers will face a number of other talented guards in Horizon League play and the fact that Laser scored 20 points on 16 shots has to be a concern.
A number of players rotated onto the 6'1 senior shooting guard who was a first-team all-OVC player last season. It was more of a case of slowing Laser down than stopping him, as it will be against Horizon League guards like Shelvin Mack of Butler and Brandon Wood of Valparaiso - two players Loyola will see in just a few short weeks.
Jordan Hicks spent a lot of time guarding Laser, which was interesting to see. It seemed that at times the length of the 6'6 swingman really bothered Laser.
"I think Jordan really did as good a job as we could on him, but he still made some really tough shots," Whitesell said.
Hicks also contributed on the offensive end, where he put in a team-high 16 points.
"Laser's a really good player and he didn't stop moving," Hicks said. "In practice they had us on a guy on our team and running around pillar screens the whole time. They really prepared us in practice for that. He's a good player and he's going to knock down his shots."
The offensive side of things looked strong for the Ramblers. While the team's hot three-point shooting that ignited the first half spurt cooled down eventually, the team finished 7-of-19 from beyond the arc. The Ramblers scored 25 points off of turnovers and had four players in double-figures.
Even though he shot 3-of-10 from the field, Walt Gibler contributed 11 points. The Ramblers attempted 23 free throws, and made 18 of them, compared to just 9-of-14 from the line for Eastern Illinois.
"Getting to the free throw and getting in the bonus early in the second half really helped us," Whitesell said.
Loyola will take its perfect record on the road now to Western Michigan on Saturday before returning home to take on Alabama State on Monday.