Feb. 16, 2008
Eastern Washington University took care of business at home, and as a result will spend the next 17 days playing for a berth in the Big Sky Conference Men's Basketball Tournament.
Three Eagles scored in double figures -- including seniors Kellen Williams and Marcus Hinton -- as EWU downed Idaho State 63-53 Saturday (Feb. 16) at to complete a weekend league sweep at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash., and win for the third time in its last four games.
The Eagles forced 24 turnovers and had just 12 themselves in their final home game of the season. It was also be the final home game in the EWU careers of Williams and Hinton, who scored 13 and 11 points, respectively,
Sophomore Brandon Moore had a team-high 14 points as the Eagles inched closer to a playoff berth. The victory propelled seventh-place Eastern into a tie in the win column with Idaho State, Montana and Montana State in the league standings. The Eagles are now 6-8 in the conference and 11-17 overall, while ISU fell to 6-6 in the league and 9-16 on the season. Montana is 6-6 and MSU is 6-5.
A 69-57 home victory over Weber State on Thursday (Feb. 14) also helped the Eagles remain alive for a tournament berth. Only the top six teams in the league advance to the Big Sky Conference Tournament which begins on March 8.
Eastern will play just twice in a span of the next 17 days. Eastern plays another must-win game at Northern Colorado (4-8) on Saturday, Feb. 23 before ending the season at Portland State on Tuesday, March 4 in the final league game of the regular season.
"I told the guys we've got to worry about what we can control," said first-year Eagle head coach Kirk Earlywine. "We control that we play at Northern Colorado next Saturday night. We can't look at it as two games, worrying about this team and that team, this seed and that seed. The only thing we have control of is how we play Saturday night at Northern Colorado and that's what we're going to work on."
Williams made 6-of-10 shots from the field and had nine rebounds, four steals and a pair of assists. The 6-foot-9 Moore also made 6-of-10 shots and added four rebounds as Eastern had a 38-20 advantage in points in the paint.
"I wish I could take credit for it, that I came up with some great drill scoring in the post," said Earlywine of Moore, who has averaged 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds on 60.0 percent shooting in his last six games. "We haven't changed our scheme or what we've been doing in practice. I think it's just an accumulative effect of what we've been working with Brandon on."
"Brandon was trying to do calculus and we went back to the addition and subtraction tables with him," Earlywine added. "It's starting to come together -- it's a credit to him. He's been a very, very willing learner and he's got a very high work capacity. All the extra work that he's done -- we've been taking him back to junior high stuff. Getting one particular mechanical flaw out his offensive game in the post has really helped him."
Junior Adris DeLeon added nine points and six assists for Eastern, and freshman Trey Gross chipped in nine points and three assists. Hinton also had six rebounds and three steals as he helped clinch the win by making 4-of-6 free throws. Hinton, who scored 12 points in Thursday's win over Weber State, had a steal and free throw with 2:08 left then added a pair of free throws with 50 seconds to play.
"All of a sudden in the last couple weeks, Marcus has cranked it up in terms of his effort level, which gives us a big boost," said Earlywine. "Kellen has pretty much done it all year. It's been a little bit slower coming for Marcus, but he made the best effort play of the season against Weber State, and then tonight with that dive that he went parallel to the floor to get the that ball. I don't know if it won the game for us or saved the game for us, but things are coming around for Marcus."
Eastern forced 27 points off ISU's turnovers -- just one from EWU's season high in that category. Idaho State had just 10 points off turnovers. Eastern made 46 percent of its shots compared to 45 percent for the Bengals, which out-rebounded Eastern 30-26.
"Idaho State plays without a point guard, so we felt we could extend our defense tonight," said Earlywine. "I didn't know we could force that many turnovers. It's not that we forced them, but that they committed them. I thought we could disrupt their timing on their offense a little bit by extending our defense. I thought it helped our aggression tonight."
Eastern never trailed, and the game was tied twice early. Eastern opened a 12-point lead in the first half and had a 29-26 advantage at halftime. After Idaho State cut the lead to one in the second half, Eastern gradually re-built its lead and took a 45-32 advantage on a steal and layin by Milan Stanojevic with 9:34 left in the game. The Eagles trailed by no fewer than six the rest of the way.
Although Eastern could have still garnered a playoff berth with a loss on Saturday, Eastern provided its best hope to qualify for the conference tournament by beating the Bengals . The win created a season split for the two schools -- and preserve hope for at least a sixth-place tie with ISU. Eastern could win a tiebreaker by virtue of its season-opening victory over Portland State, a team the Bengals were swept by.
Ties with Montana (6-6), Montana State (6-5) or Northern Arizona (8-5) do not go EWU's way because the Eagles were swept by all three of those schools. A tie with Weber State (7-4) wouldn't help either because, like the Eagles, the Wildcats defeated league leader Portland State (10-2).
Idaho State plays four games after Saturday's contest. The Bengals host Montana State on Feb. 21 and Montana on Feb. 24 before ending the season at last-place Sacramento State (2-10) on Feb. 28 and Northern Arizona on March 1.
Putting Eastern in a must-win situation this week 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.
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.