In streaky game, key baskets, offensive rebounds, blocks and free throws down the stretch give Eagles victory over MSU and weekend sweep
In a streaky game when leads of 16 for Eastern Washington and 11 for Montana State did not hold up, the Eagles made the key plays when it mattered most.
Nearly finishing with a triple-double, junior Drew Brandon had two key offensive rebounds down the stretch and made two free throws with eight seconds to play to lift Eastern to a 77-72 victory over Montana State and hand the Bobcats their first Big Sky Conference men's basketball loss of the season Saturday (Jan. 11) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Sophomore Venky Jois also had two important blocked shots in the last 1:25 of the game to help Eastern record a weekend sweep, and sophomore Tyler Harvey and junior Parker Kelly combined for 37 points and nine 3-pointers in the win. And substitute Thomas Reuter scored three huge points in the final 18 seconds and finished with eight rebounds.
Eastern led 37-21 in the first half only to have MSU out-score EWU 40-13 and take an 11-point lead after halftime. But Eastern scored 27 of the final 38 points to finish with the victory.
"What a tremendous win," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "This win would not have happened a year ago or maybe even two months ago. Our players are growing up, and they understand it takes determination to win games."
The Eagles are now 2-2 in the league and 7-8 overall heading into road games next week versus Northern Arizona (Jan. 16) and Sacramento State (Jan. 18). Montana State fell to 3-1 in the league and 8-7 overall.
The game was televised live regionally by SWX, and will be replayed on Sunday at 1 p.m. Pacific time. Eastern defeated Montana, the two-time defending Big Sky champion, 69-62 two days earlier.
Eastern was 10-21 overall and 7-13 in the Big Sky a year ago, and were 6-10 in games decided by 10 points or less. Nine of their losses were one-possession games with four minutes left.
Until Saturday, none of EWU's first 14 games this season were decided by less than seven points.
"We learned a lot of lessons last year by not having that fight in us, and I think the players have said it feels a lot better fighting," said Hayford. "Nobody is going to give us anything so we have to go take it. I think that is part of the team maturing, and I am just really, really proud of our team's progress."
Harvey, the second-leading scorer in the Big Sky, hit his season average with 19 points and five 3-pointers. Kelly scored 15 of his season-high 18 points in the first half, and finished with four 3-pointers, as EWU finished 12-of-23 as a team.
Jois had the fifth double-double of the season and 14th of his career with 14 points and 10 rebounds. And Brandon finished with 15 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in a near-miss of a triple-double.
Brandon, the Big Sky leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, was guilty of six turnovers. Eastern finished with 16 turnovers to equal a season high, and that led to 23 points for MSU – a season-high against EWU this season.
"At the start of the second half everything was going wrong," said Hayford. "We didn't hang our heads. We stayed determined, we believed in one another and we gutted out a really, really good win against one of the better teams in the conference."
Eastern finished with a field goal percentage of 47.4 percent, compared to 38.6 percent for the Bobcats. Eastern is now 7-0 when it has a better field goal percentage than its opponents and 7-0 when it makes at least 45.0 percent of its shots. Montana State also made only 13-of-26 free throws, including just 7-of-18 in the second half.
Eastern made five 3-pointers in the first 3:47 of the game, with Kelly making three of them and Harvey hitting the other two to give EWU a 15-5 lead.
Kelly hit another trey in an 8-0 run that put EWU up by 14, then Harvey hit another in a 7-0 run to give EWU its biggest lead of the half at 37-21. Montana State closed the half with a 15-6 run, but EWU hit two more treys for a total of 10 in the half and led 43-36 at intermission.
The Bobcats then out-scored Eastern 25-7 to open the second half, and held a 61-50 lead with 12:53 to play. Eastern responded with an 8-0 run to get back into the game, then had big plays in the final 4:35 of the game when MSU took its final lead.
Jois then had a basket off an offensive rebound and assist by Brandon at the 3:57 mark to give EWU the lead for good, then a free throw by Kelly gave EWU a two-point lead with 3:34 remaining. Harvey hit a basket with 2:11 left, but EWU didn't score again until Brandon fed Reuter for a basket with 18 seconds left that broke a 73-all deadlock.
Jois had a blocked shot on the next possession, then Reuter made a free throw to put EWU up by three. He missed his second shot, but Brandon got the rebound and made two free throws with eight ticks left to put the game out of reach.
"Again, I am very, very proud of my team and their heart," added Hayford. "I think it is all epitomized in Thomas, who had an amazing half on the boards and made a big free throw at the end. Right now he is waking up every day and doesn't know how he is going to feel. But he says I am here, and I am going to give it all I got. When you are coaching guys like that you can build a program. I am really proud of my team."
The five-point margin continued the tooth-and-nail finishes from recent years in the series. The last 11 meetings – including seven Eagle victories -- have featured eight games decided by six points or less. Eastern won last year 72-68 at home and fell 70-68 on the road.