December 22, 2007

Kellen Williams Delivers as Eagles Win Conference Opener 58-57

Dec. 22, 2007

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Senior Kellen Williams delivered an early Christmas present to the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team.

His leaning eight-foot bank shot with five seconds to play gave the Eagles a 58-57 victory over Portland State Saturday (Dec. 22) in the Big Sky Conference men's basketball opener for both schools at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

Williams had his sixth double-double of the year with 19 points and 11 rebounds as the Eagles improved to 6-8 overall with their fifth victory in their last eight games. After a short break for Christmas, Eastern returns to action at Reese Court on Saturday, Dec. 29 at 7:05 p.m. against a 10-2 UC Santa Barbara team from the Big West Conference.

The game, Eastern's earliest BSC start in school history, was a game matching teams picked to finish at opposite ends of the league standings. Eastern was picked to finish last in the media poll and eighth by the league's head coaches. The Vikings, now 7-6, were picked to finish third in both preseason polls.

"That's a heck of a win," said first-year EWU head coach Kirk Earlywine of winning his debut as a head coach in a Big Sky game. "Even though it was an ugly offensive game for us, we maintained our composure better than we did earlier in the year when things weren't going smooth. We took some bad shots tonight, but they weren't early in the shot clock and we made them guard us first. I think that we have made a lot of improvement in that area in the past month."

Williams has now had double-doubles in four of his last five games for EWU, which is 4-2 in his total of six for the year. The 2003 graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle, Wash., is averaging 15.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in EWU six victories for the season, and 11.9 and 8.8, respectively, for the season.

"We drew up an isolation for him and he did what a fifth-year senior is supposed to do," said Earlywine of Williams, who played all 40 minutes of the game. "He didn't bail out when there was contact, he got himself balanced and took a man's shot that went in."

Eastern survived a pair of long field goal-less stretches to pull out a game that included a season-high 12 ties and 16 lead changes for EWU. The last stretch was for 6:35 and included nine-straight misses, ended by Williams' drive and basket.

However, Portland State didn't fare any better and went the last 7:04 without a field goal. The Vikings missed their last five shots and had four turnovers down the stretch, with their last four points scored at the free throw line where they were just 7-of-19 for the game.

"I've talked before about our team being offensive sensitive, but I thought for the first time this year that we were not offensive sensitive," explained Earlywine. "When things were going bad for us on the offensive end, we knuckled down and became tougher on the defensive end."

Eastern made just 38 percent of its shots from the field, including only 6-of-25 three-pointers after making 27-of-49 in victories over Cascade (91-59) and Portland (84-75) to start a current three-game winning streak.

The Eagles were out-rebounded 36-32, but forced 19 turnovers and had just 15 themselves. Adris DeLeon was EWU's only other player in double figures with 11 as he made 7-of-9 free throws but just 2-of-16 shots from the field. He also had four assists.

Brandon Moore provided a lift off the bench with eight points and three rebounds, and Gary Gibson added six points, six rebounds and a pair of steals off the bench.

The first half featured seven ties and four lead changes as the Eagles and Vikings were knotted at 32 at intermission. Eastern built a 23-17 lead with 8:20 left in the half, but the Eagles went the final 4:56 without a field goal as PSU knotted the game at 32 at intermission.

Williams led the Eagles with nine points and seven rebounds in the first half, and DeLeon added eight points on 6-of-7 free throw shooting. Eastern made just 10-of-24 shots, including only 3-of-14 three-pointers. Portland State was much better, making 14-of-22 from the field in the first half for 64 percent. But The Vikings made only 1-of-9 free throws in the first 20 minutes.

After playing four games -- including three on the road -- in an 11-day stretch from Nov. 29-Dec. 9, the Eagles are in the midst of a somewhat easier stretch of four games in a 16-day stretch. All four of those games are at home.

Eastern closes the calendar year and that four-game stretch by hosting UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 29 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 had won 10 of 11 games with an eight-game winning streak before losing to North Carolina 105-70 on Saturday (Dec. 22).

Eastern will extend its homestand to six games to start the new year. 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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