Eagles lead Weber State by 15 early in the second half, but make just one of last 10 shots as season ends in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament
For the better part of 60 minutes, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team seemed to have Weber State's number.
But the number that counted most in the final half was 46, and that helped Weber State overcome a 12-point EWU halftime lead -- and a 15-point deficit early in the second half -- as the Eagles fell to Weber State 79-70 in Ogden, Utah, Saturday (March 5) in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Men's Basketball Tournament.
Weber State outscored the Eagles 46-25 in the second half to advance to the semifinals on Tuesday (March 8) in Greeley, Colo., against Montana. Northern Arizona, a 65-62 winner over Montana State in the other quarterfinal, will play host Northern Colorado.
"It felt like we had control of the game and control of possessions for a significant portion of the game," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine, whose team made just one of its last 10 shots from the field. "We just made too many errors defensively in the second half, it's that simple. We gave them 46 points."
Eastern went more than five minutes without a point and nearly six minutes without a field goal late in the game as Weber State broke open a close game. Scott Bamforth scored all eight points in an 8-0 run that gave the Wildcats the lead for good in the final five minutes.
"This one stings," said Earlywine, who concluded his fourth season at the helm. "I hope our players use this as motivation for next season and beyond. If you just get beat and somebody better than you beats you, ok, so be it -- that happens sometimes in competitive athletics. That game was right there for us to win and I thought we let it slip away from us."
The Eagles finished their season 10-20 overall, but in their last game had stunned WSU at home 75-59 on Wednesday (March 2) -- just the fourth victory in 29 tries all-time in Ogden. It was also just the second win in 15 road games for EWU this season as it snapped a five-game losing streak to WSU. The third-seeded Wildcats lost their chance at a first-round bye, but won the rematch to improve to 18-11 overall after finishing 11-5 in league play.
One game earlier, a stunning 59-55 overtime victory over league-leader Montana helped clinch the postseason berth for the Eagles. In the process, EWU kept the Grizzlies from clinching at least a share of the league title.
"The sting is probably not going to go away for awhile," admitted Earlywine. "I'm sure at some point sometime soon I'll look at how far this team came from January 1 on and feel very good about the progress that was made. But this is one is pretty tough to take and how we lost it."
Junior guard Cliff Colimon scored a career-high 27 points to lead the Eagles, including 22 in the first half alone when he bettered his previous high of 21 set earlier this season against Northwest University. His previous high versus a NCAA Division I opponent was 18 against Seattle.
"He played extraordinarily well," said Earlywine of Colimon, a transfer from Eastern Utah Junior College. "He had a competitive fire at the right time and was calm at the right time. We needed him because Glen didn't play well. That's why you have a team of 13 players. When one player doesn't play well, other players have to step up. Cliff was outstanding in the first half."
Weber State, which had 23 turnovers in the meeting three days ago, had just 11 in the rematch. Kyle Bullinger led four Wildcats in double figures with 26. The Wildcats made 30-of-40 free throws in the game, including 17-of-21 in the second half for 81 percent. Eastern was whistled for 26 fouls compared to 19 for the Wildcats, and EWU had just 24 attempts from the charity stripe, making 17.
"In the end, we just fouled them too much," said Earlywine. "At times, Weber State just put their heads down and drove it to the basket. I guess we fouled them."
Eastern finished the game making 9-of-15 three-point attempts, good for a season-best 60 percent. However, after a 9-of-11 start from the arc, Eastern missed its last four.
Judging from EWU's long-distance shooting, it was hard to tell which team ranked second in Division I in three-point field goal percentage and which team ranked 83rd. The Wildcats, who hit just 7-of-19 in the game for 37 percent, entered with 42.2 percent marksmanship to rank only behind national leader Northern Arizona at 43.7 percent. Eastern entered having made 36.3 percent for the year to rank 83rd out of 288 Division I schools.
Eastern fell behind early 11-6, but went on a 13-0 run to take command early. Colimon and Johnson both hit three-pointers in the run, which gave the Eagles a 19-11 advantage.
The Wildcats would cut the lead to three, but Colimon responded with his fourth trey of the half to put EWU up 28-18 and then made a fifth to give EWU a 32-21 lead with 8:05 left.
Weber State pulled to within six, but a late 6-0 run put the Eagles back up by 12 at halftime, 45-33. Colimon made six of nine shots in the half, including 5-of-6 three-point attempts. Eastern made 52 percent of its shots compared to 35 percent for the Wildcats.
In the second half, Eastern took its largest lead of the game at 48-33 on a three-pointer by Jeffrey Forbes, but the Wildcats used runs of 8-0 and 10-0 to pull within 52-51. After ties at 55-all and 57-all, the Wildcats would take their first lead with 9:43 left on a three-pointer by Bullinger.
That 61-60 lead for the Wildcats started a back-and-forth stretch in which there were nine-straight lead changes, capped by a three-pointer by WSU's Scott Bamforth that gave WSU a 70-68 lead. It was his first field goal of the game after missing his first eight shots, including four from the arc.
Bamforth would add two free throws at the 3:21 mark and then a trey with 2:31 left to push the lead to 75-68. Bullinger made all four of his free throws in the last 48 seconds to clinch the win.
Eastern, which was 21-of-41 (51 percent) in the game with 6:37 left when Johnson hit a basket, made only one of its final 10 field goal attempts in the game. Eastern finished the game at 43 percent, making 22-of-51.
Weber State learned during the season how to cope with the loss of returning league MVP Damian Lillard. A broken bone in his foot sidelined him for the season after the first nine games, and Weber State followed that by losing three of its next four outings including a 0-2 start to conference play. But the Wildcats are 12-4 since, including an eight-game league winning streak that EWU snapped. One of WSU's wins in that stretch was an 80-68 victory at EWU.
With a 7-9 league mark, Eastern had garnered its first berth in the Big Sky Conference Tournament in five seasons -- and first under its fourth-year head coach. Northern Arizona is now 14-11 after finishing 9-7 in the league season. Montana (20-9, 12-4) and regular season champion Northern Colorado (19-10, 13-3) are the other teams still alive. As regular season champion, the Bears host the semifinals and championship game on March 8 and 9, respectively, in Greeley, Colo. The winner of the title game, which is televised live on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. Pacific time, advances to the NCAA Tournament.
Although the Eagles and Wildcats have never met in the quarterfinals, Eastern has defeated the Wildcats three times in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament (72-53 in 2004, 62-57 in 2002 and 83-67 in 1990). Weber State defeated EWU 60-57 in the 2003 title game when Earlywine was a Wildcat assistant coach.
Eastern is now 7-10 in 11 appearances in the league tournament. Eastern ended its season with losses to Montana in both 2005 and 2006, but the year before won the title with a 71-59 championship game victory over Northern Arizona.