Feb. 17, 2007
The Eagles will take two more just like it next week.
Sophomore Rodney Stuckey scored 21 of his 30 points in the second half to lead the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team to a 71-70 victory over UC Santa Barbara Saturday (Feb. 17) at the Thunderdome in Santa Barbara, Calif. The game was part of the O'Reilly ESPNU BracketBusters weekend of games.
Paul Butorac added 18 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots as Eastern improved to 13-14 on the season. Kellen Williams clinched the victory over the Big West Conference foe with two free throws with four seconds left as the Gauchos fell to 15-9.
Eastern held UCSB to 37 percent shooting for the game, the best defensive performance of the season for the Eagles against a NCAA Division I team. Eastern also out-rebounded the Gauchos 38-35.
"I'm proud of our players for grinding out a victory in a really, really tough place to play," said Eagle head coach Mike Burns. "They did a heckuva job and I thought our energy and our effort were very good tonight. When we can guard like that and rebound like that, we're a tough team to beat. That's the way it was tonight."
"You have to take our hat off to our players," he added. "UC Santa Barbara has some guys on their team that can play. We did a good job of communicating in our zone, finding their shooters and contesting shots. For the most part, we did a good job rebounding. I thought it was a gutty performance by our guys."
While this week was BracketBusters, next week, it's bracket or bust. Eastern plays its final two games of the league season when it hosts Idaho State (Feb. 22) and Sacramento State (Feb. 24). The Eagles will probably need to win both to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the 10th-straight year.
Eastern is seventh in the league with a 6-8 record, with only the top six teams advancing to the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Eastern is hoping Stuckey's late-season momentum is mirrored by the team.
Now with exactly 100 points in his last three games, Stuckey made 11-of-25 shots from the field and 6-of-7 free throws, and also added five assists. Eastern had 15 assists on 25 baskets and made 15-of-17 free throws.
"We need to keep moving the ball and make the extra pass," said Burns. "When we seem to make the extra pass the ball goes in the bucket. Our guys did a great job of finding each other tonight."
Eastern made 48 percent as a team, including 63 percent in the second half when Eastern hit four three-pointers to help force UCSB out of its zone defense.
"We got out to a five-point lead, and I think they got a little nervous about their zone," he explained. "We got them out of it and then we had some success against their man-to-man. We got some good shots and we made them.
"Against man-to-man defense we get a lot of driving layins for Rodney," Burns added. "When he gets into the paint, he can either get himself a shot or he can get his teammates a shot."
Stuckey's performance -- his third-straight of at least 30 and the 15th time in his career he has hit that mark -- helped him move into fifth on EWU's career scoring list. Now with 1,397 points in his 57-game career, he passed the 1,396 Alvin Snow had from 2001-04. He is now just two points from moving into fourth. It took him just 43 career games to join 14 others as the only Eastern players in school history to score 1,000 points in a career, and now he should become just the fourth player in school history to hit the 1,400-point mark.
Stuckey was coming off two of the six highest-scoring games in his career -- and top two this season -- to earn Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors for the seventh time in his illustrious career following EWU's home split against Weber State and Portland State. He was honored twice earlier this season and four times as a freshman in 2005-06 when he was selected as the National Freshman of the Year by Collegeinsider.com. He scored 34 points in a win over league-leader Weber State on Feb. 7 and 36 in a loss to Portland State three days later.
Stuckey, ranked sixth in NCAA Division I in scoring with a current average of 24.9 per game, also broke his single season record for free throws attempted against UCSB. Last year, Stuckey made 171-of-225 from the charity stripe for 76.0 percent, shattering the school record for makes (145) and attempts (190). This year he has improved upon those records, and is currently 195-of-229 for 85.1 percent.
Three times in the last 6:06, Stuckey hit free throws or field goals to give EWU a three-point lead. With 19 seconds to play, his two free throws gave Eastern a 69-64 advantage.
But Butorac's three-pointer with 2:52 left was the key shot down the stretch. It was just his fifth three-pointer made this season in 21 attempts for the 6-foot-10 senior, who is 10th nationally in field goal percentage with a current mark of .630.
"We're constantly on Paul about squaring his hips and shoulders and following through," said Burns. "He can shoot it and he did that. He had good rotation, and wham, it was a huge one."
Except for the result, Saturday's BracketBusters game had a similar feel for EWU as its first venture in the ESPN-created event last season. Cal State Fullerton, another Big West school who was EWU's opponent in the BracketBusters debut for the Eagles last season, is about 20 miles from Los Angeles. Santa Barbara is 90 miles away. The Eagles were thumped by the Titans last season 89-63 in Fullerton.
The Gauchos are 6-4 in the Big West and have now lost three-straight games overall. They entered Saturday's game 5-0 against common opponents with the Eagles thus far. UCSB won road games at Montana State 88-56, UNLV 79-76, Portland 75-67 and Cal State Northridge 67-57, and picked up an 84-76 home win over Cal State Fullerton.
Eastern was 2-3 against those same teams, including a 110-100 home shootout win over Cal State Fullerton. The game against the Titans was the return game as part of the agreement to host a BracketBusters game, thus, the Gauchos are required to make a trip to Cheney, Wash., next season. Besides the win over Cal State Fullerton, Eastern has lost at UNLV 82-79 and Cal State Northridge 102-98, and lost at home to Montana State 82-79. Eastern won at Portland 87-66.
Eastern is in the midst of a stretch in which its final four conference games are at home. Those home games are sandwiched around the Feb. 17 non-conference game at UC Santa Barbara as part of the O'Reilly ESPNU BracketBusters.
The Eagles are now 3-5 on the road and 2-2 at home in league games thus far. During a brutal road stretch in which EWU played eight of 10 league games on the road, Eastern logged 6,557 miles during the five-week stretch of games. Between Jan. 3 and Feb. 3, Eastern was on the road 19 of 32 days.
Overall, Eastern is now 5-11 away from home this season, with road victories at UC Santa Barbara, 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.
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.