Feb. 7, 2009
Eastern Washington University and Northern Arizona may have been only been playing for a lower-division placing in the Big Sky Conference standings, but they certainly battled for their playoff lives.
In a game in which the largest lead for either team was four points, Benny Valentine scored 13 points and had seven assists as the Eagles survived for a 54-50 victory over the Lumberjacks Saturday (Feb. 7) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. The game featured 11 ties and 10 lead changes.
Coupled with Idaho State’s loss at Northern Colorado, the Eagles moved into a virtual deadlock with ISU for sixth place in the league standings. Eastern, which suffered its second-worst loss of the season on Jan. 2 in Flagstaff, Ariz., in a 72-49 Lumberjack win, is now 5-7 in the league (.417 percentage) compared to the Bengals at 4-6 (.400).
Eastern is now 11-13 overall as it completed a weekend sweep, having defeated Sacramento State 67-46 on Thursday. Northern Arizona fell to eighth in the standings with a 3-8 league record and 6-16 mark overall.
The Eagles knew a sweep would be critical to their hopes of a top six finish in the league standings. The top six teams in the regular season standings advance to the six-team Big Sky Conference Tournament which starts on March 7. Eastern plays the Bengals on the road on Feb. 14 and are at home versus the Bears on Feb. 21, but next plays at league-leading Weber State on Feb. 12.
"In terms of the conference tournament, it was good that we were able to come out on top," said Eagle head coach Kirk Earlywine. "I thought Benny Valentine played his best game of the year by far, by a wide margin. He ran the team. He got shots for his teammates. He had seven assists, a season high. He wasn’t out there chucking shots. I thought that he was the key to the win and he didn’t have to score 25 or 30 points to help us."
Valentine made 6-of-10 shots from the floor, including the only three-point shot he tried. His seven assists were a season-high by two. He also had three rebounds and a pair of steals, including one theft in crunch time that helped give EWU the lead for good.
Tied at 50 with 2:09 left, Valentine had a steal and assist on a fast-break basket by Gary Gibson that gave EWU a two-point advantage with 1:21 to play. After another NAU turnover and EWU miss, the Lumberjacks missed a short shot that EWU rebounded. Milan Stanojevic sealed the victory with a pair of free throws with three seconds left.
Stanojevic added 11 points and three assists, and made all six of his free throws. Brandon Moore had a game-high nine rebounds, but scored only four points on 2-of-8 shooting.
The Eagles led by four at halftime, but NAU quickly erased that with a 6-0 run. The Lumberjacks made their first four shots of the second half, but cooled off to make only five of their last 20. Northern Arizona made 38 percent in the second half and 45 percent in the game, but EWU was worse with 35 percent shooting in the second half and 43 percent in the game.
However, Northern Arizona was the team that entered the game ranked 13th in NCAA Division I in field goal percentage and entered Saturday’s game making 49.0 percent for the year. Eastern entered the game making 41.8 percent on the season.
"In the previous three years, they were in the top 15, and there have only been three other teams that have done that," said Earlywine, who utilized a zone defense most of the game to neutralize the Lumberjacks. "Florida, Kansas, and North Carolina -- that is pretty strong company.
"They are a very good offensive team," he continued. "They are very precise in the sets that they run and their execution is without peer in the Big Sky. I thought that we needed to disrupt their timing as best we could. The way to do that was to play more zone than we have."
Eastern did finish with a 29-22 rebounding advantage and had only 12 turnovers. The Eagles had 10 offensive boards, leading to nine second-chance points.
"We ended up with 10 offensive rebounds on 27 misses," said Earlywine. "We think that is a good effort on the offensive glass. Northern Arizona whipped our butts physically in Flagstaff a month ago. They took it to us. It was like taking your little brother out in the back yard -- that was what it was like in Flagstaff. I thought that tonight we were at least as physically aggressive as them."
The first half featured six lead changes and four ties as the largest lead for either team was four points. With both teams utilizing zone defenses for most of the half, shooting percentages were nearly identical. Eastern was 12-of-24 and NAU 12-of-23, with the Eagles owning a 14-9 edge in rebounding.
Eight different Eagles scored in the first half, including four with five. NAU was led by the seven points of Shane Johannsen, who did not score in the second half.
"Being at home certainly helped," added Earlywine. "The crowd got behind us and it was not a pretty game. In these types of games, one loose ball, one deflection or one rebound can be the difference. The little bit of extra energy that you can get from the crowd can lead to that deflection, or getting that loose ball, or getting that extra rebound. So we were fortunate to be at home tonight."
The 50 points EWU allowed against NAU was the second-fewest the Eagles have given up this season. The Eagles allowed a season-low 46 points against Sacramento State on Feb. 5, eclipsing the 55 EWU allowed versus Montana State on Dec. 6. The 21 rebounds and 16 total field goals Sac State had were also season lows for an EWU opponent.
Eastern equaled a season-high with 19 turnovers forced against Sacramento State on Feb. 5. The result were 29 points off turnovers, second only to the 30 Eastern scored off turnovers against the Hornets on Jan. 4 when EWU forced 18 miscues.