Montana State rallies from 10-point deficit in battle for fifth place in the Big Sky Conference standings
Just like the previous meeting, it came down to the second half.
Montana State used a 17-2 run to rally from a 10-point deficit after halftime as the Bobcats knocked off Eastern Washington University 60-56 in a pivotal Big Sky Conference men’s basketball game Thursday (Feb. 24) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles led 45-35 with 12:44 left in the second half, but the Bobcats went on a 17-2 run to take a five-point lead at the 5:34 mark. Montana State, which snapped a seven-game losing streak in league play and a nine-game skid overall, never trailed again.
In the midst of an intense race for a postseason playoff berth, Eastern is now 8-19 overall and 5-9 in the league. Despite the loss, Eastern remains in sixth place as it seeks one of six berths in the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
The Eagles made only 39.6 percent of their shots from the field, including just 36 percent in the second half (8-of-22) when they made only 22 percent from the three-point arc (2-of-9). Eastern went 9:17 without a field goal during MSU’s second-half surge.
Montana State, now 6-8 in the league and 12-16 overall, had out-scored EWU 48-33 in the second half and won the first meeting between the two teams 71-59 back on Jan. 16. The Bobcats improved to 5-1 in the league at that point, but lost their next seven league games, and had dropped nine games overall entering Thursday’s rematch.
Eastern is now 6-8 when it has led at halftime, including losses with leads at intermission in its last three outings. The déjà vu was not lost on Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine.
“For some reason we lost our minds in the second half,” he said of Eastern’s performance that included nine second-half turnovers. “We’ve actually started the second halves okay, but we haven’t been able to sustain it.”
Trying to clinch its first berth in the Big Sky Conference Tournament in five seasons -- and first under its fourth-year head coach -- Eastern went into the game tied for fifth with Montana State. Eastern is still one game ahead of seventh-place Idaho State and Sacramento State in the battle for six berths in the league tournament that starts on March 5 at campus sites. The Bengals and Hornets are 4-10, tied with Portland State, which is not eligible for the tournament. Because of a season sweep, Eastern has a tiebreaker advantage over Idaho State.
The Eagles have remaining league games at home Saturday against Montana (Feb. 26 at 5:05 p.m. Pacific time) before ending the regular season on the road at Weber State (March 2). Saturday’s game will be carried live regionally on Altitude Sports and Entertainment.
“If we can win Saturday we’ll be that much closer to getting in,” said Earlywine. “But I’m not big picture enough to look at things from a global perspective, so to speak. I just look at it one game at a time. We’ll just try to get ready to win on Saturday.”
Eastern was led by the 12 points by both sophomore guard Glen Dean and junior forward Laron Griffin. Griffin also finished with 15 rebounds as he recorded his third double-double of the season. Dean also had six assists, but had seven of Eastern’s 14 turnovers in the game.
Cliff Ederaine chipped in seven points and eight rebounds for the Eagles as they out-rebounded MSU 34-27. In the earlier meeting, MSU had a 39-22 advantage -- Eastern’s worst rebounding performance in the league this season. Tremayne Johnson finished with eight points and six rebounds, and Jeffrey Forbes scored seven.
“We were getting the ball into the post relatively easily and we needed to keep throwing it in there,” said Earlywine. “We kept telling our guys that but we just didn’t do it.”
Dean and Griffin combined for 17 of EWU’s first 28 points in the first half as EWU owned a two-point lead late in the half. Griffin had 10 of his rebounds in the first half alone as EWU out-rebounded the Bobcats 20-11.
Late in the half Cliff Colimon and Johnson combined for all of EWU’s points in a 7-1 run that opened a 34-27 lead, duplicating EWU’s early 10-3 advantage. The Eagles led 34-29 at halftime.
The Eagles out-scored MSU 11-6 to open the second half and took a 45-35 lead on a pair of free throws by Kevin Winford, who struggled with a 1-of-8 shooting night from the field. But Eastern went 9:17 without a field goal and had five turnovers during MSU’s 17-2 run.
The Bobcats took their first lead of the half at 48-47, then led 52-47 at the 5:34 mark. Eastern cut the lead to two on two occasions after that, but both times Bobby Howard made a pair of free throws for the Bobcats. Howard led three Bobcats in double figures with 15, including an 8-of-12 performance from the free throw line.
On Saturday, the Eagles will face a Montana team currently atop the Big Sky standings with a 12-3 record, and are 20-8 overall. They are battling for the regular season league title with 10-3 Northern Colorado and 10-4 Weber State. The Grizzlies edged Portland State 85-84 on Thursday.
The radio broadcast of all Eastern games may be heard on 700-AM ESPN “The Ticket” and via the web at www.espnnorthwest.com, with veteran play-by-play broadcaster Dennis Patchin calling the action. All home games and other Big Sky Conference games may also be viewed free of charge at www.bigskytv.org.
As the league race winds down, Eastern will also do its share of scoreboard watching as well. Montana State has remaining games at Portland State (Feb. 26) and at home versus Idaho State (March 2). The Bengals host Northern Colorado (Feb. 28) before playing at MSU, and Sacramento State hosts Weber State (Feb. 26) before ending its regular season at Northern Colorado (March 2).
The first round of the tournament takes place on Saturday, March 5, with the sixth-seeded team playing at the third seed, and No. 5 playing at No. 4. Those winners advance to play the top two finishers, with the regular season champion hosting the semifinals and championship game on March 8 and 9, respectively.