Jan. 21, 2009
The tie in the win-loss column was broken in the first half.
Entering its Big Sky Conference men’s basketball showdown with identical records, Montana opened a 15-point lead at halftime and went on to defeat Eastern Washington 63-50 Wednesday (Jan. 21) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern made only 28 percent of its shots in the first half and 31 percent in the game as the Eagles fell to 3-4 in the league and 9-10 overall. Montana is now 10-9 overall and 4-3 in the league after making 52 percent of its shots in the first half and 47 percent in the game.
"It felt like a step back tonight," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. "I’m struggling right now to put my finger on it. The one thing that I’m certain of is that you can’t shoot 31 percent, be 2-of-18 from the arc, and shoot 50 percent from the free throw line, and win very many games. We only made five turnovers, but we were 6-for-18 at point-blank range (inside the paint).
"The same thing occurred in Northern Colorado in our last game -- we are not scoring the ball in the paint," he added. "As a coach, I need to adjust my thinking in terms of what plays and sets we are going to run and what shots we are trying to get. Because the shots we’re getting in the paint, we are not making."
With the win, the Grizzlies hold on to fourth in the league standings, percentage points behind 3-2 Idaho State. Eastern slid all the way to seventh in the nine-team league.
The Eagles close out the month of January with road games at Portland State (Jan. 24), Montana State (Jan. 29) and Montana (Jan. 31). Saturday’s game at PSU, the favorite to defend the Big Sky regular season and tournament titles it won last year, starts at 7:05 p.m. at The Stott Center in Portland, Ore. That game will mark the halfway point of the league season for EWU.
Montana was paced by the 21 points of Anthony Johnson and the 10 of Brian Qvale. Qvale also had nine rebounds as the Grizzlies out-rebounded EWU 41-32. The Eagles had just five turnovers compared to 11 for the Grizzlies.
Johnson scored 13 of his points in the first half on 6-of-11 shooting from the field, and also added four rebounds and three assists. He finished the game with five boards and three assists on 9-of-16 shooting from the field.
Eastern starting center Brandon Moore, meanwhile, was 0-of-5 in the from the field in the first half en route to a 2-of-7 shooting night as he finished with four points and six rebounds.
"More than anything, it was our shots in the paint that we kept missing -- they were in essence outlet passes for them," explained Earlywine. "We kept missing shot after shot after shot in the paint and they ran it at us in transition. (Anthony) Johnson is a load in transition. He is extraordinarily quick and fast and puts a ton of pressure on defense. But he doesn’t do that if they are taking it out of the net."
After falling behind by as many 25 points in the second half, Eastern rallied behind senior guard Gary Gibson. The Eagles out-scored Montana 24-6 in the final 4:54 as Gibson scored all seven of his points in that stretch. Gibson finished with four assists and three steals.
"I thought Gary Gibson gave us some energy," said Earlywine. "He got up and guarded, and took a little bit of pride by stopping them from scoring.
"I don’t think that our defense was entirely our problem," he added. "I wasn’t happy that they shot 52 percent in the first half. We are putting way too much pressure on our defense by our inability to score in the paint and our inability to make free throws. That’s a hard thing when you are counting on your defense to stop them time after time because you can’t get a bucket."
Last year, the Eagles were also 3-3 at this juncture of the season, but proceeded to lose four-straight games -- all versus Montana and Montana State. Eastern won three of its last six games, but the damage was done as EWU finished 6-10 in the league and failed to qualify for the league tournament for the second-straight season.
EWU finished the league season 5-3 at home and 1-7 on the road last year, and thus far are currently 2-2 at home and 1-2 on the road in league games. Eastern will have to lose less at home or win more on the road if they hope to qualify the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the first time since EWU had a nine-season streak of berths (1998-2006).
Overall, the Grizzlies are now 2-8 on the road this season and 8-1 at home.
Portland State, meanwhile, is sitting atop the league standings with a 5-1 record heading into Saturday’s game with the Eagles. The Vikings are 14-5 overall and won last year’s Big Sky regular season and tournament titles after finishing 23-10 overall and 14-2 in the league.
Since falling at home 80-66 to Weber State on Jan. 8, the Vikings have won their last two games -- 85-58 over Idaho State on Jan. 10 and 57-43 at Northern Colorado on Jan. 18. Four Vikings average double figures in scoring, led by Dominic Waters at 12.5 per game. Eastern has won five of the last seven meetings, including a 76-74 loss in Portland to end the 2007-08 season for the Eagles. Earlier in the year, Eastern won 58-57 in Cheney.
With nine victories this season, the Eagles are just two victories away from matching last year’s overall win total (11-19), and certainly have the practice time to work on doing that. Eastern was coming off a 75-68 loss at Northern Colorado on Jan. 15, with that game coming during a stretch in which the Eagles play just three games in a spacious 17-day span.
Before that loss, Eastern was coming off a home split in a pair of league games, including a 77-69 setback to Weber State. 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 6-3 at home, having concluded a three-game, seven-day road trip with its last road triumph in an 87-74 victory on Jan. 4 at last-place 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.