January 25, 2007

Eagles Trail by 15 But Win by 15

Jan. 25, 2007

Final Stats

Sacramento, Calif. -

Eastern Washington University men's basketball coach Mike Burns used words like poise, character, cohesion and chemistry to describe this one.

With Rodney Stuckey putting on a record-setting performance from the free throw line, Eastern rallied from a 15-point deficit to win by that margin, 100-85, over Sacramento State in a Big Sky Conference game Thursday (Jan. 25) at the Hornets Nest in Sacramento, Calif.

"We showed great poise and great character," said Burns, whose team out-scored the Hornets 73-45 after falling behind 40-27. "I'm very proud of them for that.

Eastern rose above the .500 mark for only the third time this season, and are now 11-10 on the year. Most importantly, the Eagles are 5-4 in the Big Sky Conference, just one game behind leader Idaho State at 5-2. Eastern is also just one game behind 6-3 Weber State, which the Eagles play Saturday (Jan. 27) in Ogden, Utah.

The Eagles now have a better road conference record (3-2) than home conference record (2-2). Eastern plays three more league games on the road before returning home for the final four Big Sky tilts of the season. One of those home games will be a rematch with Sacramento State, which fell to 7-13 overall and 2-5 in the conference with Thursday's loss.

"The cohesion and chemistry is very good right now," said Burns, whose team hasn't had more than a two-game winning streak or two-game losing streak this season, but will go for three-straight victories on Saturday in Ogden. "There have been some questions about that lately. But I know we had a very happy group in the locker room tonight."

Besides Stuckey's 12th 30-point game of his 51-game career -- including his sixth this season -- Paul Butorac had 21 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. Kellen Williams added 11 points and nine rebounds, and Derek Risper came off the bench to finish with 13 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots.

But Stuckey was again his amazing self, finishing 8-of-19 from the field and 15-of-16 from the free throw line to go along with seven rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals.

He now has made 319 free throws in his two-year career, surpassing EWU's previous school record of 317 set by Randy Buss from 1970-72. Stuckey missed his 16th and final attempt Thursday, which could have equaled him with Jason Lewis for the best single-game free throw percentage performance in school and Big Sky history (16-of-16 in 2001 versus Weber State).

Stuckey scored many of his points on drives to the baskets against Sacramento State's pressure defense. The result was Eastern making 16-of-24 field goals and 21-of-27 free throws in the second half. Eastern finished the game making 58.6 percent from the field and 32-of-41 free throws for 78 percent.

"When they really crawl up in you and extend that defense, they give you one choice," explained Burns. "And that one choice is to put it on the deck. Through most of the second half that was what we did. When you can get by the first guy, it opens things up.

"We shot 67 percent in the second half, and that's why," he added of the team's offensive performance, which also included just 15 turnovers after Sac State entered the game forcing an average of nearly 21 per game. "Kudos to our players for being strong with the basketball and taking care of it."

Eastern fell behind early 31-16 and 33-18, but eventually chipped into that lead to take a 43-42 advantage late in the first half. Eastern's zone defense and a 45-30 rebounding edge in the game helped the Eagles overcome the big deficit.

"They hit some bombs against us and got on a roll," said Burns. "We were struggling to stop them but our guys did a nice job, especially rebounding. That was a phenomenal effort."

Tied at 47 at halftime, Eastern trailed 59-55 when it went on a 12-0 run to take the lead for good. Stuckey, Williams and Butorac each scored four points in the run as EWU held Sac State scoreless for nearly four minutes.

The Eagles broke the game open with a 12-2 run that gave them an 86-70 advantage with six minutes left. Stuckey and Risper each scored four points in that run as EWU held Sac State to just a single field goal in a span of 4:48.

Eastern led by no less than 11 the rest of the way and led by as many as 19.

"We switched zone defenses in the second half," explained Burns of a suggestion made by EWU associate head coach Carl Howell at halftime. "We've worked on a 1-3-1 a little bit in practice but we haven't shown it in a game. My hat's off to Coach Howell for making that call at halftime. We stuck with that for a long stretch and it gave them some problems."

Eastern plays Saturday against a Weber State team that knocked off league-leading ISU Thursday 71-58. Weber State, led by first-year head coach Randy Rahe, is 13-9 overall. The Wildcats and Eagles each recorded key wins as the road team won all four Big Sky games on Thursday.

Entering the ISU game, the Wildcats, along with Idaho State, were the league's top defensive team, allowing opponents to average just 65.8 points per game to rank second in the league. The Wildcats were second in field goal shooting defense (.426) while Eastern was second in field goal percentage offense (.492). Weber State leads the league in three-point field goal percentage defense (.289). The top scorer for first-year head coach Randy Rahe is David Patten, who scored 23 in the win at ISU. One of only two returning players from last year's team, Patten was averaging 13.5 points per game heading into Thursday's game at Idaho State.

Eastern is 3-21 all-time in Ogden, however, all three of those victories have come in the last six seasons (2000, 2001 and 2005)

"Randy has them playing very well right now and is doing a great job with his team," said Burns. "It's going to be two different styles. They will tempo press us and zone us after made field goals, and they'll play a containing man-to-man after misses. We'll have to find ways to quicken the pace. If we can do that, we'll be alright."

The top six teams in the nine-team league advance to the Big Sky Conference Tournament. The quarterfinals take place on March 3 and are hosted by the No. 3 and 4 seeds. The winners of those two games and the top two teams in the regular season standings receive byes to the semifinals on March 6. The semifinals, as well as the nationally-televised championship game the next night, are hosted by the regular season champion.

Eastern is now 4-8 away from home this season, with road victories at Sacramento State, Portland State, Northern Colorado and an 87-66 romp at Portland on Dec. 9. Among Eastern's road losses are setbacks to Gonzaga, UNLV, Washington, Santa Clara and Oregon -- all with at least nine wins each in non-league play. Three of those teams are or have been nationally ranked. In conference play, Eastern is 2-2 on the road and 2-2 at home.

Last year the Eagles were 6-1 at home in the Big Sky and were 3-4 on the road to finish third in the league at 9-5. Eastern beat Portland State in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament, but fell to eventual champion Montana in overtime in the semifinals.

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