The Eagles lived up to that hype Monday night, albeit after a slow start.
Eastern made eight of its 16 3-point attempts as it rallied from an early double-digit deficit to post a 66-56 win over host Mercy on the opening night of hoops across the state.
“This is probably one of the best shooting teams, and I think it showed today,” Eagles senior guard Natalie Collins. “We had been talking about it, but it was up to us to come out here and show it.”
Four players hit two 3-pointers apiece for Eastern (1-0), which won its season-opener over the Jaguars for the fourth consecutive year.
The matchup between two teams ranked in The Courier-Journal’s preseason coaches poll – Mercy at No. 13 and Eastern No. 17 – was one-sided early.
The Jaguars (0-1), last season’s Sixth Region runners-up, scored the first eight points and led 13-2 almost six minutes into the game.
But led by Collins, the Eagles didn’t panic, and slowly chipped away at Mercy’s lead, closing to within 16-9 by the end of the first quarter.
Eastern trailed 19-11 early in the second period before going on a 15-0 run that was sparked by its defense and outside shooting. Junior guard Briana Mishler started the surge with a 3-pointer from the corner, then followed that up with a pull-up jumper.
“We were kind of trying to play their game first, instead of playing our game,” said Collins, who recently signed with Alabama A&M. “When we play off our defense, our defensive intensity picks up, then we’re a lot better and our offense feeds off of that.”
Eastern led 35-29 at halftime, but the Jaguars scored the first five points of the second half to cut it to one. However the Eagles answered with a 10-0 run, which was capped by a Collins 3-pointer, to take command.
Eastern’s lead grew to 15 in the fourth quarter before Mercy rallied. The Jaguars couldn’t get closer than six, though.
“They hit shots and we didn’t,” said Mercy coach Keith Baisch, whose team shot 36.5 percent (19-for-52) for the game. “Then even when we got behind, we did a good job of coming back, but every time we’d make a run they hit a big shot, or a big three. We just really couldn’t get over that hump. Give them credit, they hit their shots when they needed to and kept us from getting those big runs.”
Eastern shot 42.3 percent (22-for-52) from the field, 48.9 percent after its first seven misses.
“We made some shots finally, no magic formula,” Eastern coach Josh Leslie said. “That’s why I didn’t call timeout (in the first quarter). We were getting shots, we just didn’t make any of them. We were like, ‘It’ll come. If it doesn’t we’re going to get beat.’ But if we’re only going to score nine points in a quarter we’re not going to beat many teams on our schedule. For us, it wasn’t any change from anything, it was just, make some shots then we can get into our pressure.”
Collins and sophomore guard Kiara Pearl scored 15 points apiece to lead the Eagles while Kinnard and Mishler added 12 and 10, respectively.
Senior Sadie Zeisloft led Mercy with 18 points, on the strength of four 3-pointers, while Josie Woods added 10.