January 15, 2009

Eastern Battles Bears Before Losing 75-68

Jan. 15, 2009

Final Stats

Junior guard Benny Valentine did all he could to keep up with the blistering scoring pace of Northern Colorado.

Valentine scored 31 points, but the Bears pulled away in the final seconds for a 75-68 Big Sky Conference men's basketball victory over Eastern Washington University Thursday (Jan. 15) at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion in Greeley, Colo.

Valentine, the Big Sky Conference's leading scorer entering the game with 16.7 average, scored 22 points in the first half to keep the Eagles close while falling behind 40-37 at intermission. Milan Stanojevic added 13 points for EWU, but Eastern had troubles stopping UNC's Jabril Banks.

Banks scored 23 points, including a rebound dunk and two free throws in the final 32 seconds as Eastern missed two shots with the game on the line.

"Down the stretch we were out-toughed," said Eagle head coach Kirk Earlywine. "We would get got a stop but missed block-outs, and we were beaten to loose balls. There were eight or nine balls that were on the floor and they got them all."

The Eagles are now 1-5 when allowing at least 75 points or more. Eastern is 7-0 when scoring at least 70 points, but missed that mark by two points.

Eastern actually had the same number of field goals (22) as the Bears, and made 10-of-23 three-pointers in the game. But the Eagles were out-scored 24-14 at the free throw line -- the third time in EWU's last four games it has been out-scored from the line by double digits.

"We gave away too many possessions and were out-scored on the free throw line by double digits again," said Earlywine. "It's becoming a habit. We out-scored Northern Colorado from the field, but when you get outscored from the free throw line by 10 it's hard to win."

Stanojevic hit a trio of three-pointers and Valentine made five as he finished 11-of-16 overall from the field and 4-of-4 from the line. Six-foot-9 center Brandon Moore added 10 points and nine rebounds, but he made just 1-of-8 shots from the field to go along with 8-of-10 shooting from the line. Coupled with 6-8 Mark Dunn, Eastern's starting front line was just 2-of-13 from the field.

The game was the first of three contests in a spacious 17-day span for the Eagles, who are now 3-3 in the Big Sky and 9-9 overall. Although it started a stretch of playing four of its next five on the road, the spacing of games makes the schedule bearable. The Eagles host Montana on Jan. 21 before closing out the month of January with road games at Portland State (Jan. 24), Montana State (Jan. 29) and Montana (Jan. 31).

The Bears are now 7-11 overall and 3-2 in the Big Sky Conference. Northern Colorado is now 5-2 at home while winning just once in nine games on opponent home courts.

The Bears led much of the first half, using a 9-0 run to break from a seven-all tie and pull ahead 16-7. Valentine did all he could to keep Eastern in the game, scoring 22 points before intermission on 9-of-11 shooting. Eastern trailed 40-37 at halftime as he hit a trio of three-pointers and had several drives to the basket, and during one stretch Valentine scored 22 of 24 EWU points.

Northern Colorado had entered the game second in the league in scoring offense (73.4) and is the top three-point shooting team in the league (.408). The Bears feature three of the league's top six three-point shooters, in addition to the 6-foot-7 Banks, who entered the game averaging 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

Banks scored 13 of his points in the first half, but was slowed down considerably late in the half by EWU junior 6-8 post Matt Brunell.

"Matt did a heckuva job of defending Banks," said Earlywine. "We were better defensively in this game than we were against Weber State (a 77-69 loss). But like I told the team, this isn't November when you can walk away and say you can take some things from a game and build on. This is the middle of January."

Valentine hit a quick bucket in the second half, then spent much of the half on the bench battling leg cramps. However, Eastern battled back to take the lead at 46-44, then led 53-49 on a three-pointer by Stanojevic.

But with Valentine on the bench, Northern Colorado used a 9-2 run to regain the lead at 58-55. The Bears never surrendered that lead, although Valentine's two free throws pulled Eastern to within 69-68 with 1:04 to play.

Banks, however, put a nail in Eastern's coffin with his rebound dunk with 32 seconds left. After a missed three-pointer by Valentine, Banks and Will Figures each hit a pair of free throws in the final 24 seconds to seal the win.

Eastern was coming off a home split in a pair of league games last week, including a 77-69 setback to Weber State on Sunday (Jan. 11) in an early-season Big Sky showdown. In its previous game, the Eagles used a late surge to hold-off Idaho State 71-65 on Jan. 8.

The Eagles are now 3-7 on the road this season and 6-2 at home, having concluded a three-game, seven-day road trip with an 87-74 victory on Jan. 4 at Sacramento State. Eastern opened the league season with a 61-55 victory over Montana State on Dec. 6, which represented EWU's last win over a NCAA Division I opponent until the victory over the Hornets.

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