December 17, 2007

Second-Half Surge Gives EWU 84-75 Victory

Dec. 17, 2007

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The three-point shots kept falling and a trio of Eagles stepped up to score big in the second half as Eastern Washington University used a 52-39 second-half scoring advantage to beat Portland 84-75 Monday (Dec. 17) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

Eastern made 11-of-22 three-pointers in the game, including five by Milan Stanojevic as he finished with a team-high 18 points. But Kellen Williams, Trey Gross and Adris DeLeon also scored in double figures as that trio combined for 32 second-half points.

"We have spent time working on our offense, and we have spent a little bit more time shooting the ball," said first-year head coach Kirk Earlywine, whose team has won four of its last seven games after a 1-5 start.

Eastern improved to 5-8 overall heading into its Big Sky Conference opener on Saturday (Dec. 22) at Reese Court. Tip-off is 7:05 p.m. in the earliest start in league history for the Eagles.

Portland, a member of the West Coast Conference, fell to 3-8 after leading by four at halftime and as many as six early in the second half. The Pilots entered the game 2-1 against Big Sky opponents, including a 58-57 win at Montana on Dec. 7. Portland lost 78-73 to Portland State on Nov. 28 and fell by just four points at Washington of the Pacific 10 Conference last Saturday.

"Portland was playing well defensively," Earlywine said. "They went to Missoula and held Montana to fifty-seven points, and they did a terrific job against Washington the other day."

The Eagles have now scored 175 points in their last two games, including a 91-59 victory over Cascade last Friday. Eastern had scored only 49 in a 58-49 loss at Idaho on Dec. 9 and were averaging just 55.6 points per game before their current two-game winning streak.

"Anytime that you see the ball go in you gain a residual effect and you gain confidence from balls going in the basket," explained Earlywine. "We were going through a stretch when the ball wasn't going in, and I think we may have lost some confidence to a degree. We have a fragile team, a young team. Being back at home, our practices are so much better because of the transfers we have sitting out that can't travel with us."

Ahead just 60-59 with inside of six minutes to play, Eastern used a 13-2 run over a three-minute stretch to open a 12-point lead with 2:18 remaining. DeLeon scored five points in the run, Williams made a basket and Gross and Gary Gibson each made a three-pointer.

Williams, one of only two seniors on EWU's team, finished with his third double-double in the last four games and fifth of the season. He had 16 points and 10 rebounds in the game, including 11 points and seven boards after intermission. Williams made 7-of-9 shots from the floor and also had a pair of assists.

DeLeon scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime, and also finished with five assists and a pair of steals.

"He has the capability for getting shots for the other guys on our team and that's what we need him to do," Earlywine said of DeLeon, EWU's backup point guard. "He sometimes thinks that his primary responsibility is to get shots for Adris, and I want him to understand that he needs to get shots for the rest of the team and his looks will come. He is getting there, corrected his mistakes at half and had a great second half."

Gross scored nine of his 11 points in the second half. Stanojevic also had three assists and a pair of steals, and Brandon Moore came off the bench to chip in five points, six rebounds and three blocked shots.

Eastern made a season-high 56 percent of its shots from the field, besting its previous high of 47 percent in a win at Alaska Anchorage on Nov. 24.

Six different players hit treys against Portland, matching the feat the Eagles had one game earlier in a 91-59 victory over Cascade when EWU finished with a school-record 16 on 27 attempts. Eastern has now made 27 of its last 49 three-point attempts after making just 2-of-11 in its last loss, a 48-49 setback at Idaho on Dec. 9.

"Some nights it goes in and some nights it doesn't," Earlywine said. "That's why we have been spending 70 of our practice time on defense. I think our team at times becomes offensive sensitive, and when shots don't go in they don't guard as hard. We have spent a lot of time talking about that and working on it.

"In the second half against Cascade the other night we were 2-of-18 inside the paint, and we were 8-of-28 in the paint against Idaho," added Earlywine. "We've spent some time in practice on finishing in contact. I thought that in some cases we were dropping our head when we got bumped inside."

On Saturday, Eastern plays a 7-4 Portland State team in the league opener for both schools. It is the earliest Big Sky start in school history for the Eagles, who are picked to finish last or second-to-last in the league. The Vikings, along with Montana and Weber State, are considered to be one of the top three teams in the Big Sky Conference in the 2007-08 season.

Portland State is coming off a 72-60 loss at Washington State on Dec. 9, and beat Cal Poly 74-66 at home on Dec. 12. The Vikings play at Washington (Dec. 18 in Seattle) before taking on the Eagles.

And to close out the calendar year, Eastern gets to host Cal State Santa Barbara in a return game from the ESPN BracketBuster game EWU played in California last year. The Eagles edged the Gauchos 71-70 late last season, but this season UCSB has won nine of 10 games with a seven-game winning streak heading into road games at Ball State on Dec. 19 and North Carolina on Dec. 22 prior to playing at EWU.

League play continues in January for EWU with home games against Northern Arizona (Jan. 3) and Sacramento State (Jan. 5). All six games in the homestand begin at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time.

Eastern is coming off a 15-14 finish to the 2006-07 season as the last three EWU seasons have 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.

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