Defense Leads Eagles to First Win

Nov. 15, 2007

Final Stats

Shooting in each half went in different directions for both teams, but Eastern Washington University's defense saved the day as the Eagles defeated UC Riverside 59-51 in a non-conference men's basketball game Thursday (Nov. 15) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

Eastern held the Highlanders to 18 points in the second half as new EWU head coach Kirk Earlywine recorded his first official win. Eastern made only 21 percent of its shots in the first half in falling behind by as many as 14 and 33-22 at halftime, but held UCR without a point for a nearly seven-minute span to help the Eagles improve to 1-2 this season. The Highlanders fell to 0-3.

"I told the guys the guys after the game, `A, congratulations' and `B, thanks,'" said Earlywine. "It was my first win as a Division I coach and we got it in a fashion that I really liked. I thought we showed tremendous mental toughness tonight."

"The fact that they hung in there being down double digits at halftime shows the mental toughness we need going forward," he added.

Senior Kellen Williams the only returning starter for the Eagles, led EWU with 17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and three steals while playing the game's entire 40 minutes. It was his second double-double in 60 career games for EWU.

"(It's nice) when you have a guy get 17 of your 59 points, 13 rebounds and play all 40 minutes -- that's what we need him to do," said Earlywine. "He's our best-conditioned guy. He took unbelievable care of his body over the summer.

"He's going to have to play long minutes for us this year and we need to him to play long minutes well," Earlywine continued. "He can't compromise the quality of his play just because of the minutes. Obviously he's not going to play 40 every night, but he was playing so well tonight that we had to leave him in there."

True freshman Trey Gross added 15 points for EWU, including 4-of-4 free throws in the final 38 seconds to clinch the win. Senior Marcus Hinton chipped in 14 points on 12-of-15 shooting from the free throw line.

UC Riverside made 64 percent of its shots in the first half, but just 25 percent in the second half. Larry Cunningham led the Highlanders with 20 points.

"We were guarding in the first half, but they were making unbelievable shots," Earlywine said. "I had to convince our guys to stay the course, and that's not easy sometimes to do when you don't have experience to draw from. I kept telling them in the timeouts and at halftime that 'We're playing good. Don't deviate.'

Eastern, meanwhile, made just 21 percent of its shots in the first half and 48 percent in the second half. The Eagles started the second half with a 17-2 run to take its first lead of the game. The Eagles led by as many as nine in the second half.

"I thought we got as good of shots in the first half as we did in the second half, but we just didn't make them," added Earlywine. "We did do a great job with a lead. We have not had a lot of time to spend in practice on situation basketball, because our numbers have been so short. In spite of that, we did a good job tonight."

"Either I tricked them or they have some faith in the coaching staff, because they did keep doing what we asked them to do," he added.

Eastern sandwiches this week's game against a Big West Conference opponent between early-season foes that include two Pacific 10 opponents, one from the Mountain West, one from the Atlantic Coast Conference and a fifth upper-division foe from either the Big 10 or the Horizon League. The Eagles know the importance of continuing to improve after suffering season-opening losses against high-level foes by margins of 27 and 35 points.

Earlywine's seven-man squad opened the 2007-08 season with a 68-41 loss at 10th-ranked Washington State on Nov. 9. Three nights later on Nov. 12, Eastern fell 92-57 to New Mexico at the famed "Pit" in Albuquerque, N.M.

Thursday's contest is one of only two home games in Eastern's first 11 outings of the season. The other is West Coast Conference foe Santa Clara on Nov. 29.

The murderer's row lineup of opponents continues for the Eagles at Washington on Sunday (Nov. 18) to play the Pacific 10 Conference Huskies. Tipoff in that game is 3:05 p.m. in a game televised regionally on Fox Sports Net.

The Eagles then spend Thanksgiving with three games at the Great Alaska Shootout, including their opener versus Virginia Tech of the ACC. In their second game, Eastern will play either Michigan (Big Ten) or Butler (Horizon). Eastern also plays at nationally-ranked Kansas on Dec. 5, and on Dec. 22 opens Big Sky Conference play at home against Portland State in the earliest BSC start in school history.

Eastern's first two opponents (WSU and UNM) had a 41-25 record last year, including a 26-8 record by the Cougars. Washington, Virginia Tech, Michigan and Butler all had at least 19 victories a year ago, and collectively were 92-45.

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