Eastern uses best defensive performance of the year and balanced scoring to snap a four-game losing streak
The Eagles followed the same script.
Eastern Washington University used a pair of scoring runs in each half, a stifling defense and balanced scoring to cruise to a 69-52 victory over third-place Montana State in a Big Sky Conference game Saturday (Jan. 28) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles had its best defensive performance of the season in holding MSU to 52 points, and the 31 percent shooting overall and 21 percent from 3-point range were also the best for EWU's defense this season. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak for the Eagles, who hadn't won since Jan. 12.
"This is our best defensive game of the year," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "Montana State is playing really good basketball right now, and I couldn't be more proud of our guys and the coaching staff for shutting them down. We really needed this win. We needed some things to fall our way and so it feels good to go to bed with a win tonight. We needed that bad.
"Defense leading to offense -- that was the story of the night."
Eastern, which defeated MSU 75-61 to open the Big Sky Conference schedule exactly a month earlier on Dec. 28, was led by the 17 points of senior forward Cliff Ederaine. Senior forward Laron Griffin added a double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds, as four Eagles scored in double figures and six scored at least eight.
A 13-1 run in the first half helped Eastern open a 12-point lead in the first half and a nine-point advantage at intermission. After MSU pulled to within four in the second half, Eastern went on a 16-3 run to put the game away.
The Eagles improved to 10-12 overall – matching last season's win total -- and 4-5 in the Big Sky. Although the Eagles remain in sixth place in the league standings, they helped their cause toward securing one of six berths in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Just four games ago, in a 71-70 loss at Northern Colorado, Eastern was battling for third place in the league.
"I don't know how that is going to shake out," said Hayford. "I have been a head coach for 13 years and there is a lot of basketball left to play, so I'm not caught up in the race yet. But if you play defense like this you're going to have a chance to win every night. "
The Bobcats, who fell to 11-9 overall and 6-3 in the league, had won six of seven games since falling to in EWU's most lopsided victory in Bozeman in school history.
"The sweep of MSU always helps because in the event of a tie with them, we have the advantage," said Hayford. "But they're playing pretty well. They're ahead of us. We have four wins and they have more than that. Coach (Brad) Huse does a great job."
The Eagles are back in action this Thursday (Feb. 2) at Northern Arizona before returning home Saturday (Feb. 4) to face Sacramento State. Earlier this season, Eastern knocked off the Lumberjacks 76-59 and beat the Hornets 65-60 in their next game to improve to 9-8 overall and 3-2 in the Big Sky.
Eastern, which had lost three of its last four home games after a 4-0 start, are now 6-3 at home. A season-best crowd of 3,617 on Alumni Appreciation Night watch the game just two days after 3,512 witnessed EWU's 74-60 home loss to Montana.
Eastern had 12 turnovers to 20 for Montana State, marking the 20th time in 22 games this season EWU has had less turnovers than its opponent. EWU finished the game making 42 percent of its shots from the field, just two days after making only 34 percent against Montana in a 74-60 loss.
Ederaine made 7-of-13 shots from the field, and also added eight rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and a steal. Griffin made 6-of-10 shots as he finished with his first double-double of the season and fourth in his career.
"I didn't feel like it was a must-win game but Laron told the team it was," said Hayford. "You need to back it up when you talk like that and he did that with a double-double. He plays with tremendous heart. And what helps this team is when he's on the floor and not in foul trouble sitting next to me. And for him to play 32 minutes with only three fouls says a lot."
Senior point guard Cliff Colimon, who scored 26 points in the first meeting against MSU, finished with 11 in the rematch and added six assists and three steals. Senior forward Tremayne Johnson was the fourth Eagle in double figures, finishing with 11 points, eight rebounds and two steals.
"It doesn't feel like there are that many nights where the other team's big guys are the same size as ours," Hayford said of his big men. "We shot a low percentage inside against the Grizzlies because they were just big. So it was neat for us to flex our muscles down low."
Junior forward Collin Chiverton, who had scored at least 20 points in EWU's last five games, finished with just eight on 3-of-12 shooting while playing only 20 minutes because of a nagging foot injury. True freshman Parker Kelly also chipped in eight.
"We were playing the guys who were playing the best defense," explained Hayford. "To Collin's credit, even though he didn't play as much, he was the best encourager on the bench and he's a great teammate."
Montana State led early 17-14, but Eastern quickly erased that with a 13-1 run to take a 27-18 lead with 5:36 left in the first half. Five different Eagles scored in the run, including four points by Griffin.
Eastern extended the lead to 12 on a 3-pointer by Kelly before settling for a 37-28 halftime lead. Colimon scored nine points in the first half, and Griffin and Kelly each added eight. In the previous meeting versus MSU, Eastern led 37-29 at intermission.
Montana State cut the lead to 46-42 at the 11:29 mark, but that's when Eastern exploded for its 16-3 run. Ederaine scored six points in the run, and Griffin and Johnson each had four. The Bobcats went 8:25 without a field goal, and by the time they broke that streak at the 3:04 mark, EWU had opened its largest lead of the night at 67-47.
"We had a complete defensive effort against a team that has been playing very, very well so I'm just really proud of our players," added Hayford. "One of the things that we were really working on versus Portland State and Montana is that if we want to get the ball inside we need to get higher percentage shots and we need to shoot more free throws. We knew our team was progressing and we needed to develop some sort of low post presence in order to get better as a team."