Dec. 3, 2008
Senior Milan Stanojevic got the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team off to a fast start and junior Benny Valentine helped the Eagles have a fast finish.
Those two players combined for 32 points as Eastern triumphed 63-58 in a difficult non-conference test Wednesday (Dec. 3) at Portland of the West Coast Conference at the Chiles Center in Portland, Ore.
Stanojevic scored all 17 of his points in the first half to help the Eagles open a 13-point lead as he made all six of his shots from the field with five three-pointers. Valentine scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half as he scored eight of Eastern’s last 11 points in the final 3:13 of the game.
The victory improved the Eagles to 5-2 and continued Eastern’s best start in six years. Wednesday’s game was Eastern’s final tune-up before EWU’s Big Sky Conference opener this Saturday (Dec. 6) at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. The Bobcats enter that game 3-2 while the Eagles are 5-2.
"That was a heck of a win," Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine said of the victory over the Pilots, who entered the game 4-1 and unbeaten at home. "Portland was playing awfully well with wins over Washington and Nevada."
The Eagles trailed 49-46 with 8:21 left, but used a 6-0 run to regain the lead for good. Valentine, who came into the game leading the Big Sky with an average of 20.3 points per game, later hit three-straight baskets for the Eagles to put EWU up 58-53 with 1:01 to play. Two free throws by the transfer from Texas Tech gave EWU a 60-55 advantage with 33 seconds remaining.
"I believe that’s what good guards do and that’s what we expected him to do when we recruited him," said Earlywine. "Late it the game, it’s hard to run intricate, set plays. You need to have some guys who can create a shot for his teammates or create a shot for himself. Benny made some big-time plays, and that’s why he played in the Big 12 at one point. I know we’re happy to have him."
Portland scored just nine points in the final 8:21, including a fairly meaningless basket with 16 seconds to play. But in the eight minutes prior to that, the Pilots were just 1-of-7 from the field with four turnovers.
"I know were not going to shut anybody out -- I tell our players that all the time," said Earlywine. "But we need to make teams earn their points. For the most part tonight, we did not give them points -- they had to earn them."
Eastern out-rebounded Portland 35-31 and had 12 offensive rebounds, including several late in the game. Six-foot-9 Brandon Moore and 6-8 Mark Dunn each had eight rebounds, including four offensive boards each.
"That’s was the difference in the game down the stretch," said Earlywine of the offensive rebounds. "We were struggling in the second half, and those extra possessions are invaluable. It takes a toll physically on the other team, but it also takes its toll mentally. In big, late-game situations where they guard you real well and you miss a shot, when you come up the ball it can be deflating."
The shooting of Stanojevic and his teammates was the key in the first half as Portland started the game in a zone. The second-year Eagle from Serbia attempted just one shot in the second half, but the damage was done prior to halftime as the Eagles made 7-of-10 three-pointers en route to a 62 percent shooting half.
"We make a huge emphasis in making sure that we try to attack inside out and not becoming stagnant on the perimeter," said Earlywine of Portland’s zone. "We try to cut through zones and almost run what some people would consider a motion offense. Our guys did it extraordinarily well in those first five or six possessions."
Turnovers were Eastern’s undoing in the first half with nine. The Eagles finished with 16 in the game.
"We’ve done a good job with that up to this point," said Earlywine. We came in only averaging 12 to and tonight we had 16 against a straight, half-court man-to-man defense. That will be something we’ll have to address."
Thanks to their hot shooting, the Eagles used a 9-0 run in the first half to jump out to a 24-14 lead. The Eagles led by 13 at 33-20 before settling for a 35-28 halftime lead.
"We should have (had a bigger lead at halftime) with the way we were shooting the ball and out-rebounding them," said Earlywine. "We played very well with the exception of the turnovers. I tell our guys all the time we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot and give away possessions by turning the ball over or making a bad shot. Those are giveaway possessions to me. That upset me a great deal and think I relayed that fairly well to our players at halftime."
Portland roared back in the second half to knot the score at 40 at the 14:31 mark, then took a 49-46 lead with 8:21 to play. But that’s when Eastern regained the lead with its 6-0 run.
The Eagles are off to the school’s best start since the 2002-03 season when that squad used a four-game winning streak to improve to 7-2. The 5-7 Valentine has been the catalyst, averaging a Big Sky-leading 19.6 points per game while leading EWU in scoring in five of seven games. He has also averaged 2.7 assists per outing.
Besides the Portland win, the Eagles are coming off a 78-64 victory over UC Irvine on Nov. 30 in which a 31-8 run helped Eastern open an 18-point second-half lead. But it was the sixth-straight game the Eagles played without the services of projected starters Adris DeLeon and Chris Busch, who still have yet to be cleared to play.
Montana State is 3-2 following a 78-66 win over Great Falls, but that came after a split of a difficult four-game schedule to start the season. The Bobcats lost to Nevada (72-63) and Boise State (74-61), but picked up overtime victories over Colorado (85-82) and Oregon State (82-79). The victory over the Beavers on Nov. 26 came after MSU rallied from 15 points down in the second half.
The Bobcats were 15-15 a year ago, but have four new starters in their lineup. The Bobcats were picked to finish seventh in the league by the media and eighth by the coaches, and Eastern was selected seventh by the coaches and eighth by the media. Eastern was 6-10 a year ago while MSU earned the sixth and final Big Sky Conference Tournament berth with a 7-9 record.
"Like us, they came into the year with a lot of question marks, but they’ve answered a lot," said Earlywine. "They are off to a good start. I wish we were not playing a conference game this early, but the schedule says we are playing Montana State on Saturday, so we’ll be ready."
Last season, Eastern fell to MSU in back-to-back games within five days of each other -- 74-69 in Bozeman and 64-57 in Cheney. That 12-point swing helped keep the Eagles out of the post-season for a second-straight season.
"I think we owe them one," Earlywine said. "They got us twice last season -- I haven’t forgotten and either have our players."
In any event, one of those teams will be in sole possession of first place in the league until the next Big Sky game is played on Dec. 20. And with a 3-0 record thus far at home, Earlywine is hoping for a large crowd of fans to show up at Reese Court, particularly the student crowd that didn’t get much of a chance to see the Eagles at home in the 2008-09 season.
"A year ago we had a very limited number of Saturday games while our students were here," Earlywine said. "This year we have a few more and there is no question the student section is a factor. I think the students and fans who have been to our games so far like our team. The average Joe out there can kind of identify with Benny Valentine. We have not played what I consider to be great basketball yet, but we have been pretty competitive and unselfish. Those are things that fans like to see."
Earlywine is in his second season at the helm after leading the Eagles to an 11-19 record overall and 6-10 Big Sky Conference mark last season. Season tickets, including several packages with selected games, are now on sale. Information is available at http://WWW.GOEAGS.COM.
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ESPN College Scoreboard -- http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/scoreboard
Rodney Stuckey NBA Page -- http://www.nba.com/playerfile/rodney_stuckey/index.html
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