In Even ESPN BracketBusters Matchup, Eastern Falls 78-73 at UC Irvine

Eagles force a season-high 23 turnovers, but couldn’t make shots down the stretch while Anteaters sink 62 percent of their attempts in the game

At this point, the only bracket the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team is concerned with is in the Big Sky Conference Tournament.

But the Eagles put up a mighty fight in a close game Saturday (Feb. 18) at UC Irvine in a Sears ESPN BracketBusters match-up, but fell to the hot-shooting Anteaters 78-73 at the Bren Events Center in Irvine, Calif.

The Anteaters made 62 percent of their shots from the field in a game that featured 12 lead changes – equaling a season high for the Eagles -- and seven ties. The largest lead for the Eagles was five points and the biggest margin for the Anteaters was seven. Eastern, meanwhile, forced a season-high 23 turnovers but made only 26 percent of its shots in the second half and 34 percent in the game.

“We actually did a really good job defensively,” said first-year Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. “We thought we could force a lot of turnovers and we did a good job with that. They are a very, very skilled team and we forced 23 turnovers. But they can shoot it – I would like to see their field goal percentage a little lower. We forced 23 turnovers and had 13 offensive rebounds, so the effort and energy are there.”

Junior forward Colin Chiverton led the Eagles with 20 points, and senior guard Cliff Colimon had 13. Senior forwards Cliff Ederaine and Tremayne Johnson each chipped in 11 points, and Eastern true freshman Parker Kelly added 10 points off the bench.

With three crucial league games left to play in the regular season, the Eagles ended their non-conference schedule with a 6-8 record. As part of the BracketBusters agreement, the Anteaters will play in Cheney in the 2013-14 season. The Eagles are now 12-15 overall and 6-7 in the league, while UC Irvine improved to 10-17 overall and are 5-8 in the Big West Conference.

Eastern led much of the second half, but fell behind by five before using an 8-0 run to take a 72-69 advantage with 3:21 left in the game. A 3-pointer by Kelly started the run, and was followed by a steal and dunk by Johnson. Following the 22nd turnover of the game by UCI, Chiverton hit a trey for EWU’s final lead of the game.

A pair of UCI baskets started a game-ending 9-1 run, as the Eagles missed its last four shots of the game. A turnover by the Eagles with 15 seconds left put the nail in the coffin as UCI converted a free throw with 12.5 seconds left to make it a two-possession game. The Eagles made only one of four free throws in the last two minutes after going 20-of-23 up to that point.

“We went through a couple of dry spells where we missed some really good looks,” explained Hayford. “The effort and the energy are there, but we have to make baskets. We’re not getting some points we desperately need. We made only 34 percent from the field but still had a chance to win it at the end.”

The Eagles turned the 23 turnovers they forced into 26 points. Eastern had only nine turnovers after entering the game ranked 15th in NCAA Division I in turnover margin (+3.7 per game). The 62 percent shooting by the Anteaters was the highest percentage against the Eagles this season.

Saturday’s game also featured two of the top three-point shooting teams in NCAA Division I, as the Eagles entered the game with an average of 9.3 per game to rank third. The Anteaters were 53rd with a 7.7 average. Chiverton entered sixth individually with an average of 3.1 treys per game.

Eastern finished the game 8-of-23 from the 3-point arc, while the Anteaters made 8-of-14. Chiverton made 4-of-6 for EWU.

But free throws were the most glaring difference – particularly in the first half. The Anteaters, who were 264th in NCAA Division I with a .660 percentage (last in the Big West), made only 3-of-12 in the first half and 12-of-25 in the game. Eastern, 118th nationally at 70.5 percent, sank 13-of-15 in the first 20 minutes and were 21-of-27 in the game.

“Until we missed those late free throws, we had a great shooting night from the line,” said Hayford. “But you have to make shots from the field and we didn’t do it. We are going to have to do a lot better than this. Getting the ball in the basket is the object of the game.”

Eastern was coming off a thrilling 79-76 victory over Northern Colorado on Feb. 15 that helped Eastern moved from sixth into fifth in the Big Sky standings. The Eagles had to rally from a 17-point deficit with 17:21 to play, and were still down by 16 with 11:25 left.

Eastern plays at 7-6 Idaho State (Feb. 23) and 7-6 Portland State (Feb. 25), and then ends the regular season at home versus Idaho State (Feb. 28).

With EWU just one game out of third place, there are still too many tiebreaker scenarios to get a good handle on where the Eagles most likely will place. But just one more EWU victory coupled with a UNC or MSU loss guarantees the Eagles a spot in the Big Sky Tournament for the 12th time in school history.

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