Jan. 29, 2009
The second half of the Big Sky Conference season didn’t begin as well as the first half started, but it followed a familiar pattern.
Montana State rallied from 10 points down in each half as the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team lost 69-65 to Montana State Thursday (Jan. 29) at Worthington Arena in Bozeman, Mont.
Eastern out-shot MSU 46 percent to 39 percent, but missed its last three field goals and its last two free throws as EWU went the final 2:58 without scoring. Montana State scored the game’s final three points from the free throw line.
“When you hold a team to 39 percent shooting and have only eight turnovers, you ought to win the game,” said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. “But we missed a bunch of shots down the stretch and we were out-scored by double digits on the free throw line.”
The game was a rematch of a 61-55 Eagle victory nearly two months ago on Dec. 6 in Cheney, Wash., that started the league season on a high note for EWU. The result Thursday wasn’t the same, however, as Eastern lost for the fifth-straight time this season and for the fifth-straight time against MSU in Bozeman. Eastern hasn’t won this season since defeating Idaho State 71-65 on Jan. 8, and the school’s last win in Bozeman came on Feb. 5, 2004, in a 64-61 triumph. In last year’s meeting, Eastern led at halftime by 17 before losing 74-69.
At the time of its previous meeting this season against MSU, Eastern was 6-2 overall and off to its best start in six seasons. Eastern is just 3-10 since, including only two league victories in eight outings, to fall to 9-12 overall and 3-6 in the Big Sky. The Bobcats improved to 10-9 overall and 4-4 in the league as they remained in the top six in the league standings, while the Eagles fell to seventh.
Eastern 6-foot-9 center Brandon Moore paced the Eagles with 17 points, but missed his final two shots of the game and had only three rebounds. Eastern was out-rebounded 40-32 as MSU finished with 16 offensive rebounds. Although MSU scored just 14 second-chance points, they scored another 12 off EWU’s turnovers.
In the previous meeting, EWU held Montana State to just 22 second-half points as the Bobcats made only 29 percent from the field after intermission. The Eagles held MSU to 55 points, which remains as Eastern’s best defensive performance of the season, and EWU also had 11 offensive boards.
“They way we beat them at our place they beat us tonight,” said Earlywine, whose team used a zone defense to build its lead. “They went and rebounded it. Our positioning in the zone did not lead us to miss block outs. There’s not a guy right beside you (to block out), so you have to go find him. We didn’t do that well enough.”
Senior Milan Stanojevic and junior Benny Valentine each scored 10 points for the Eagles, with Stanojevic and Gary Gibson each adding four assists. Montana State was led by the 16 points and 10 rebounds by Divaldo Mbunga, who had five of MSU’s offensive rebounds.
Eastern built a 38-28 lead in the first half, and led 38-33 at halftime as Moore scored 13 first-half points. In the second half, Eastern led 43-33 with 17:30 to play on a three-pointer by Stanojevic.
Eastern held a seven-point lead until MSU went on a 15-4 run over a 4 1/2 minute stretch to take a 54-43 advantage with 8:30 left. The Bobcats led by as many as six before two free throws and a three-pointer by Adris DeLeon pulled Eastern to within 66-65 at the 2:58 mark.
But a miss by Moore was sandwiched around missed three-pointers by Mark Dunn and Valentine. Valentine and Stanojevic also missed the front end of one-plus-one free throw opportunities in the final minute during a stretch in which MSU was only able to muster three free throws by Branden Johnson in the final eight seconds.
“I don’t know if we could have gotten better shots than we had down the stretch,” said Earlywine. “That’s when you have to make them.”
Eastern next plays in Missoula, Mont., against a Montana team the Eagles don’t have to go back as far to remember. On Jan. 21, the Grizzlies handed EWU a 63-50 loss in Cheney -- representing Montana’s second road win in 10 games this season and EWU’s second-straight home setback.
“Like I told the guys in the lockerrroom, I don’t know anything else to do besides go get ready for the next one and work harder,” added Earlywine. “We are going to have to go over there and play really well. I thought they were more physical than us last week at our place and we’ll see if we can get that corrected Saturday.”
Before Thursday’s setback, Eastern was coming off an 83-61 loss at league favorite and defending champion Portland State last Saturday (Jan. 24). The Eagles led by as many as seven late in the first half, but PSU runs of 24-5 and 15-0 turned the promising start into a blowout.
That same Vikings team played Montana in Missoula on Thursday, and came away with a 72-65 loss. Montana has won three-straight games is now 6-3 in the league and 12-9 overall, and trail PSU (6-2) and league-leader Weber State (7-1) in the standings. Below the Grizzlies are Northern Colorado (5-4), Idaho State (4-4), Montana State (4-4), Eastern (3-6), Northern Arizona (2-6) and Sacramento State (1-8).
Eastern has played some good stretches of basketball recently, but consistency has been a problem. Eastern rebounded well (29-25 against PSU), took care of the ball well (just five turnovers versus Montana and only eight against MSU) and shot well (49 percent versus PSU and 46 percent vs. MSU). But they have also not rebounded well (41-32 versus Montana and 40-32 versus MSU), not handled the ball well (19 turnovers versus PSU) and not shot well (31 percent against Montana).
Last year at this juncture of the season, the Eagles were mired in a four-game losing streak -- all in games against Montana and Montana State -- to go from 3-3 in the league to 3-7. 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 1-4 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).
-- EWU-UM Series History (Since 1983-84) -- Eastern has lost the last four meetings and 10 of the last 11, with the lone victory in that stretch coming on Dec. 30, 2006 in Cheney when the Eagles beat the Grizzlies 74-71. Eastern is 15-38 against the Grizzlies since 1983-84, including a 7-19 record in Missoula, 8-17 in Cheney and 0-2 on neutral courts versus the Grizzlies. Montana leads the series overall 55-36.
Eastern lost in the 2007-08 season 80-61 in Missoula and 59-57 in Cheney. In the 2005-06 season, Montana swept the Eagles in three games -- 78-72 in Missoula, 68-46 in Cheney and 73-71 in overtime in the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Flagstaff, Ariz. In both regular season meetings that season, Eastern had leads before succumbing to Montana second-half comebacks. In the overtime loss, Eastern trailed by 14 before a late 10-0 run put Eastern back into the game. But Eagle freshman Rodney Stuckey missed a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer to end regulation. Montana then went on a 6-0 run in overtime to end Eastern’s season.
Prior the six-game losing streak that Eastern ended on Dec. 30, 2006, Eastern had won 10 of the previous 14 meetings including regular season sweeps three-straight conference seasons from 2001-03. However, the Grizzlies snapped a four-game losing streak to the Eagles when the fifth-seeded Grizzlies upset second-seeded EWU 70-66 in the 2002 Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game in Bozeman, Mont.
Included in the series history was an 81-75 victory in Missoula to end the 1998-99 season that clinched the sixth and final berth in the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the Eagles. That victory snapped Eastern's eight-game losing streak in Missoula, and a home win in 1998 snapped a 10-game losing streak overall in the series.
A 77-75 Eagle home loss at the end of the 2000-2001 regular season gave Montana a share of the Big Sky Conference men's basketball title in front of 5,426 fans at Reese Court in Cheney. The Eagles had taken a 12-point lead with 8:06 to play in the second half, but went the next 6:21 without scoring. During Montana's 17-0 run, the Eagles missed 10-straight field goal attempts while the Grizzlies made 6-of-7 shots. The loss was Eastern's first in eight conference home games. Montana made 4-of-6 free throws in the last 23 seconds to clinch the win and hold off Eastern's comeback attempt that included a trio of three-pointers in the last 1:45.