COLUMBIA — There hasn’t been much to smile about in the past 12 years for fans of the Eastern Illinois women’s basketball team. The team hasn’t finished better than three games under .500 since the 1994-95 season, but the Panthers (0-2) will likely take a step forward in the rebuilding process this season.
Missouri (1-0) will look to shut down the Panthers when the two teams meet on Thursday at Mizzou Arena in the Tigers’ second game of the season.
Eastern Illinois is led by junior center Rachel Galligan and sophomore point guard Jessica Huffman. The pair won the last two Freshman of the Year awards in the Ohio Valley Conference and Galligan was named First Team all-OVC last season. Fourth-year Panthers coach Brady Sallee said their contributions have helped the team develop.
“Whenever you’re rebuilding, you have to do it in recruiting,” Sallee said. “You can come in and bring a system, make some changes but it’s all sort of short-term until you get the talent level where it needs to be. To be able to have these two kids early in our tenure and them being able to do what they’ve done early has been everything we’ve hoped for and more.”
Both players have been strong offensively so far in their careers. Galligan (17.1 points per game) and Huffman (16.8) were the Panthers’ top two scorers last season. Each said the other is a type of player she hadn’t played with before, and the center and point guard compliment each other well.
“It’s great, I’ve never had a point guard like that before who really has a good understanding of you and how the team needs to play,” Galligan said.
Huffman was similarly complimentary of Galligan.
“I’ve never really played with anyone I would call a true post player,” Huffman said. “I don’t understand how people would know to guard her because she can do just about anything she wants to.”
Galligan led the OVC in blocks the past two seasons, but her greatest strength may be her versatility.
“You’ve got somebody that has the ability at the post to face up and hit shots to the perimeter and also with her back to the basket has made herself a dynamic scorer,” Sallee said. “She has more than one move and has plenty of counters down there. If you take one thing away she can do something else.”
Huffman has established herself as an offensive presence for the Panthers. She has shown the ability to shoot from the outside, attack the basket and distribute the ball well. This season, Sallee is looking for her to continue her strong play on offense while improving defensively.
“We feel like we have a pretty complete player offensive and she’s working to get it done on the defensive end now,” Sallee said. “We feel like once we get her there we’re going to have one heck of a point guard.”
The Tigers will be strong favorites on Thursday, and they know stopping Galligan and Huffman will likely stop any chance of a Panthers upset. Missouri coach Cindy Stein remembers the pair from watching them play at last year’s Missouri Tiger Classic.
“You’ve got to know where they are all the time, you have to have a lot of help on them,” Stein said. “Those two make the most of their moments.”
Galligan will be a tougher match up for forward Shakara Jones than any of Murray State’s players, but the freshman said she is ready to take on the tougher competition.
“She’s a very fundamentally sound big person so it’s going to be a challenge,” Jones said.
Galligan and Huffman have set high hopes for this season and next, with Galligan targeting OVC Player of the Year honors.
“They quickly established themselves as go-to players in our program,” Sallee said. “The most exciting thing for me is knowing that I’m not getting ready to lose one to graduation.”