Eastern Wins Big Sky Opener 61-55

Dec. 6, 2008

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Benny struck again, even if his shooting eye was a little off.

Junior guard Benny Valentine had 15 points, four assists, four rebounds and three steals to lead Eastern Washington to a 61-55 victory over Montana State in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams Saturday (Dec. 6) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

Valentine, a transfer from Texas Tech who redshirted at EWU last season, assisted on three-straight baskets in the second half in a 7-0 EWU run to turn a three-point deficit into a four-point advantage. Later in the half, Andy Genao hit a trio of baskets to give the Eagles another four-point lead with 35 seconds to play, and the Eagles closed out the win with Trey Gross and Milan Stanojevic each making a pair of free throws in the final 26 seconds.

"It was not the prettiest game that we've played this year," said Eagle head coach Kirk Earlywine, whose team suffered through a 38 percent shooting night, including a 3-of-19 start to the game. "It was good when shots aren't going in that we show enough toughness to still win the game. We kept our turnovers at 12, which was what we were averaging for the year. That allowed us to get enough shots at the basket, even though we won the game shooting 38 percent."

The game featured nine ties and 11 lead changes as Eastern out-scored MSU 33-22 in the second half to improve to 6-2 heading into next Saturday's (Dec. 13) game at Hawaii. Montana State slipped to 3-3 overall as the two teams opened league play less than a month into the 2008-09 campaign. The two teams will meet again Jan. 29 in Bozeman.

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-foot-7 Valentine has been the catalyst, averaging a Big Sky-leading 19.0 points per game while leading EWU in scoring in six of eight games. He has also averaged 2.8 assists per outing.

Saturday, he made just 6-of-17 shots from the field and had 10 of his points in the first half. But three of his assists came after intermission.

"Benny trusted his teammates," said Earlywine. "Sometimes when things aren't going as well as we would like it is easy for him to go off on his own, get shots for himself and try to score. He kept throwing the ball to the right spot. He got it to Milan when Milan was open, and Benny got it to the post when he needed to. It's good for him to trust his teammates like that."

Junior college transfer Mark Dunn added a season-high 12 points and seven rebounds for the Eagles, making 4-of-9 shots from the floor and 4-of-6 free throws. Brandon Moore added seven points and seven rebounds, but made only 3-of-9 shots.

Genao chipped in eight points and a team-high nine rebounds, making 4-of-7 shots from the field. He had just two points and four rebounds in the first half. All six of his second-half points came in a late 6-3 run that turned a one-point lead into a four-point advantage with 35 seconds left.

"I've told Andy that he needs to play harder than the other guys on the floor, and he did in that stretch," said Earlywine. "He had four offensive rebounds in the first half. That's what we need him to do. We need him to be a get your hands dirty, lunch pail, hard-hat kind of guy. When he does that it helps our team tremendously."

Eastern had an early 8-4 lead, but the Bobcats wiped that out with a 6-0 run. Eastern tied the game several times after that, but the Bobcats managed to lead by as many as seven in the first half and at 33-28 at intermission.

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