February 14, 2008

Eastern Blasts Second-Place Weber State 69-57

Feb. 14, 2008

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In the first of what could be several loser-out games for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team, the Eagles passed with flying colors.

Four Eagles scored in double figures -- led by the 21 points and 10 rebounds of 6-foot-9 sophomore Brandon Moore -- as EWU recorded a crucial 69-57 Big Sky Conference victory over second-place Weber State Thursday (Feb. 14) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

Although Eastern remains in seventh place in the league standings with a 5-8 conference record and 10-17 mark overall, the Eagles stayed alive for a post-season tournament berth. Eastern hosts 6-5 Idaho State on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time in the final home game of the season for the Eagles. Only the top six teams in the league advance to the Big Sky Conference Tournament which begins on March 8.

After losing 74-64 earlier this season at Weber State, first-year Eagle head coach Kirk Earlywine registered his first win over his former school. Earlywine spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at WSU from 1999-2006.

"This magnifies the importance of Saturday's game," said Earlywine of EWU's win and Idaho State's 81-58 loss at league-leading Portland State. "We felt like tonight was a must win to keep our hopes alive to get into the conference tournament. From that standpoint, tonight was most special, and it had nothing to do with my seven years at Weber State."

Eastern used a 19-3 run to end the first half to turn a four-point deficit into a 12-point halftime advantage. Weber State had just one field goal in the final 8:26 of the first half, then came no closer than nine in the second half.

"It feels good to play well," said Earlywine. "It's probably the most complete 40 minutes we've played. The game is easier when you can play inside-out. At times this year we've lacked the ability to score the ball in the paint, and tonight Brandon Moore was just terrific. It takes a lot of pressure off the perimeter guys and the perimeter shooting when you have a guy getting points in the paint. And then when we did miss shots, he went up and got four offensive boards."

Moore had his second double-double in his last four games and is averaging 13.4 points and 8.8 rebounds in his last five games. Senior Marcus Hinton scored 12 second-half points for the Eagles against the Wildcats, and freshman Trey Gross and junior Adris DeLeon each added 11. Senior Kellen Williams chipped in nine points and eight rebounds and junior Gary Gibson had six assists and just one turnover in 27 minutes.

Eastern made 43 percent of its shots in each half -- its highest shooting percentage overall in the last five games. The Eagles made 10-of-26 three-point attempts (39 percent) and 11-of-16 free throws (69 percent).

"Coaches always look a whole lot smarter when the ball goes into the basket," said Earlywine. "Frank Layden used to tell me all the time 'The single most important thing in basketball is shooting.' The NBA teams have that figured out, while sometimes college coaches, me included especially, tend to forget that. We tend to spend an inordinate amount of practice time on defense and rebounding. In theory you should spend more time in practice on shooting the ball than anything else because it's the single most important thing. Sometimes I lose sight of that -- we have spent a lot more time the last month shooting the ball in practice."

Defensively, Eastern held Weber State to 40 percent shooting after the Wildcats made 56 percent in the first meeting. Eastern also had four less turnovers (16-12) and was out-rebounded by just a 36-32 margin.

"I was pretty happy with it for the most part," Earlywine said of his team's defense. "We held them to 33 percent in the first half and below 40 percent for the game. If you hold a team to below 40 percent and you're close on the glass, you should have a chance to win. There have been times this year we've held people to 40 percent or less and not won the game, so I was happy with our defense tonight."

Putting Eastern in a must-win situation Thursday was the fact Eastern had lost three league games at home by margins of four, seven and two (average margin of 4.3). Five of EWU's league setbacks have come by four points or less. Eastern's eight league losses are by an average of 7.8 points per game, and just 6.3 if an 80-61 loss at Montana is eliminated.

Now Eastern can set its sights on an Idaho State team that edged them 58-56 earlier this season in Pocatello in a game in which EWU led early 18-4. The Eagles missed three shots down the stretch with the ISU game up for grabs and also misfired on four free throws in the final five minutes that could have made a difference.

Meanwhile, Idaho State made three free throws in the last 37 seconds to clinch its second league victory in as many tries. Milan Stanojevic had five three-pointers to finish with 19 points for EWU, and Idaho State junior Matt Stucki had 11 points and 10 assists to lead ISU. Logan Kinghorn, Lucas Steijn and Donnie Carson also combined for 38 points and 16 rebounds for the Bengals after entering the game with a combined average of just over 15 points and less than eight boards per outing.

"The biggest problem that Idaho State presents is their guards are 6-foot-5 and 6-6," explained Earlywine. "They do a good job of running stuff to get them to the post. We've got to do a better job than we did the first time defending their two big guards in the post. We've got to do a better job offensively of attacking, even though we got beat in a very close game at their place and we had an 18-4 lead. We were not sharp at all and we were not good on offense. We did a good job of guarding them at their place for the most part, and we were terrible on offense. So we've got to do a better job attacking their defense."

Williams and Hinton will be playing in the final home games of their Eastern careers on Saturday.

Williams, a 2003 graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle, Wash., has nearly averaged a double-double at home this season, with averages of 15.5 points and 9.2 rebounds on 53 percent shooting from the field. For the season, Williams is averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds on 50 percent shooting to make him a bonafide candidate for All-Big Sky Conference honors. He has averaged 9.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and has made 52 percent of his shots in his 84-game career (67 as a starter).

Hinton, a 2004 graduate of Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., is averaging 5.6 points this season and 5.8 in his 52-game EWU career (28 as a starter). Last year's Reese Court meeting against ISU was one to remember as he scored 24 points and hit a game-winning three-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining in EWU's 82-79 victory over the Bengals. He made a school-record 6-of-6 three-pointers in the win versus ISU and 10-of-10 free throws in the first meeting when he finished with 13 points.

"We would like to see both of those players go out with wins," Earlywine said. "For what those two players have given our program and the university in terms of how they've conducted themselves and how they've played, I would hope the fans and students will come out and show some appreciation for these two players."

Eastern, with six players who had never played NCAA Division I basketball before -- let alone a Big Sky Conference game -- hit its high point with a 3-3 league record in mid-January. At that time, Eastern was 8-12 overall and had won seven of its last 14 games after a 1-5 start to the season. Since the 3-3 start, Eastern lost four in a row but has won two of its last three.

Before a 59-57 road win at Sacramento State on Feb. 7, Eastern's last win was a 91-85 overtime victory over Northern Colorado on Jan. 17. Eastern's other league victories were home wins versus Sacramento State (76-52 on Jan. 5) and Portland State (58-57 on Dec. 22). The Eagles versus Vikings league match-up represented the earliest BSC start in school history for EWU.

Eastern had a 15-14 finish to the 2006-07 season as the last three EWU seasons yielded a collective record of 38-49. The Eagles had their string of consecutive Big Sky Conference Tournament berths snapped at nine last season as EWU finished with an 8-8 league record. Eastern became the first school since the league expanded in 1970-71 (it has had at least eight teams ever since), to have a .500 record and not place in the top six.

 

EWU & ISU in the Big Sky (Entering Thursday's Games): Eastern features two of the Big Sky Conference's top 10 leading scorers in senior Kellen Williams (sixth, 13.6) and Adris DeLeon (10th, 12.1). Williams is also second in rebounding (8.4), eighth in field goal shooting (.509), 13th in steals (1.08) and first in minutes played (35.4). DeLeon is also sixth in assists (3.0) and eighth in free throw percentage (.773).

In addition, Milan Stanojevic leads the Big Sky with a total of 62 three-pointers made (2.4 per game to rank third) and ranks 25th in scoring (8.7). Brandon Moore is 10th in rebounding (5.6) and 10th in blocked shots (0.69).

Eastern's top team rankings are second in three-pointers made per game (7.5), second in turnover margin (+0.77 per game), third in free throw shooting (.728) and third in scoring defense (67.2). Eastern, with seven or less turnovers in three of its last seven games, is second in the league in turnovers committed with an average of 13.7 per game. However, Eastern is last in the league in field goal percentage (.402).

Individually, Idaho State is led by Matt Stucki with an 11.6 scoring average that ranks 12th in the league, with Amorrow Morgan ranking 20th (9.8). Stucki also ranks fourth in the league in assists (3.78) and Logan Kinghorn is first in free throw percentage (.839) and 14th in rebounding (4.9).

Idaho State is ranked second in the league in field goal percentage defense (.434), but doesn't rank in the top four in any other categories. The Bengals are last in the league in three-pointers made per game (4.39) and three-point percentage (.303).

In league games only, Weber State has allowed 62.9 points per game -- tops in the league ahead of Idaho State at 64.4. The Bengals have allowed conference opponents to make just 40.5 percent of their shots against them -- tops in the league.

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