Eagles Try to Snap Losing Streak and Shooting Slump at Big Sky Favorites
Jan. 22, 2009
Snapping its losing streak will be a difficult task for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team.
After losing their third-straight game -- and second-in-a-row at home -- in a 63-50 loss to Montana on Wednesday (Jan. 21), the Eagles close out the month of January with road games at Portland State (Jan. 24), Montana State (Jan. 29) and Montana (Jan. 31).
Saturday’s game at PSU, the favorite to defend the Big Sky regular season and tournament titles it won last year, starts at 7:05 p.m. at the Stott Center in Portland, Ore. That game will mark the halfway point of the league season for EWU.
Figuring out a way to put the ball through the net will be the main focus for the Eagles as they play five of their next seven games on the road. During its losing streak, EWU has made only 36.5 percent of its shots from the field, including only 26.6 percent of its three-point attempts (17-of-64 three-point attempts). Opponents, meanwhile, have made 46.5 percent from the field and 39.2 percent (20-of-51) from the arc.
Particularly frustrating to Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine are misses from inside the paint. Starting center Brandon Moore has made only three of his last 15 shots (20 percent), and starting power forward Mark Dunn, despite a pair of career-high 14-point performances, has made only 11-of-29.
“The same thing occurred in Northern Colorado (in a 75-68 loss on Jan. 15) -- we are not scoring the ball in the paint,” said Earlywine after his team made just 31 percent versus UM. “As a coach, I need to adjust my thinking in terms of what plays and sets we are going to run and what shots we are trying to get. Because the shots we’re getting in the paint, we are not making.
“I don’t think that our defense was entirely our problem,” he added. “We are putting way too much pressure on our defense by our inability to score in the paint and our inability to make free throws. That’s a hard thing when you are counting on your defense to stop them time after time because you can’t get a bucket.”
Both the Grizzlies and Eagles had entered the game 3-3 in the conference and 9-9 overall, but Montana was the team to hold on to fourth in the league standings, percentage points behind 3-2 Idaho State. Eastern slid all the way to seventh in the nine-team league.
Last year, the Eagles were 3-3 at this juncture of the season, but proceeded to lose four-straight games -- all versus Montana and Montana State. Eastern won three of its last six games, but the damage was done as EWU finished 6-10 in the league and failed to qualify for the league tournament for the second-straight season.
“This is a different team and a different year, so we can’t concern ourselves with that,” said Earlywine of the similarities in situations. “You can make a mistake by trying to look at the big picture right now. We can’t think of it as any sort of stretch of games -- it’s simply one-game (at a time) right now.”
EWU finished the league season 5-3 at home and 1-7 on the road last year, and thus far are currently 2-2 at home and 1-2 on the road in league games. Eastern will have to lose less at home or win more on the road if they hope to qualify the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the first time since EWU had a nine-season streak of berths (1998-2006).
Portland State, meanwhile, is sitting atop the league standings with a 5-1 record heading into Saturday’s game with the Eagles. The Vikings are 14-5 overall and won last year’s Big Sky regular season and tournament titles after finishing 23-10 overall and 14-2 in the league.
Since falling at home 80-66 to Weber State on Jan. 8, the Vikings have won their last two games -- 85-58 over Idaho State on Jan. 10 and 57-43 at Northern Colorado on Jan. 18. Four Vikings average double figures in scoring, led by Dominic Waters at 12.5 per game. Eastern has won five of the last seven meetings, including a 76-74 loss in Portland to end the 2007-08 season for the Eagles. Earlier in the year, Eastern won 58-57 in Cheney.
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-- Eagles Need Two More Wins to Match 2007-08 Total -- With nine victories this season, the Eagles are just two victories away from matching last year’s overall win total (11-19), and certainly have had the practice time to work on doing that. Eastern was coming off a 75-68 loss at Northern Colorado on Jan. 15, with that game coming during a stretch in which the Eagles play just three games in a spacious 17-day span.
Before that loss, Eastern was coming off a home split in a pair of league games, including a 77-69 setback to Weber State. In its previous game, the Eagles used a late surge to hold-off Idaho State 71-65 on Jan. 8.
The Eagles are now 3-7 on the road this season and 6-3 at home, having concluded a three-game, seven-day road trip with an 87-74 victory on Jan. 4 at last-place Sacramento State. Eastern opened the league season with a 61-55 victory over Montana State on Dec. 6, which represented EWU’s last win over a NCAA Division I opponent until the victory over the Hornets.
Eastern’s 6-2 record after the first eight games was its best start since the 2002-03 season when EWU used a four-game winning streak to improve to 7-2. Eastern was unable to duplicate that 7-2 start by losing at Hawaii on Dec. 13, but Eastern won its Big Sky opener after a 66-51 victory against Montana State on Dec. 6 that represents the earliest Big Sky start in EWU history.
-- Big Sky Scoring Leader an Academic All-America Nominee -- Eastern’s Benny Valentine is not only the Big Sky Conference scoring leader, but the 5-foot-7 point guard from Omaha, Neb., is being nominated for Academic All-America honors. The business major has a 3.40 grade point average in just over one year at EWU after transferring from Texas Tech and redshirting the 2007-08 season. He was selected as EWU’s December Scholar-Athlete of the Month.
He leads the league with a 17.4 scoring average, followed by Anthony Johnson from Montana (16.1) and Loren Leath from Sacramento State (15.8). Valentine, a candidate for Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year accolades, was selected as the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week after leading the Eagles to three-straight NCAA Division I victories in a six-day stretch in November.
For the season, he has made 40 percent of his shots from the field, 36 percent of his three-pointers (41-of-113) and 74 percent of his free throws to go along with averages of 3.1 assists (fourth in the league), 1.5 steals (fourth) and 2.8 rebounds per game. He has led Eastern in scoring in 13 games thus far, with a pair of 30-point performances, six outings with at least 20 and 17 of 19 games in double figures.
In EWU’s nine victories this season, he has averaged 19.1 points on 44.2 percent shooting from the field. In Eastern’s losses, those figures fall to 15.8 points and 37 percent shooting.
In a four-game stretch from Jan. 4 to Jan. 15, Valentine averaged 24.5 points on 35-of-63 shooting from the field (54.0 percent), 12-of-24 from the three-point stripe (50.0) and 18-of-24 from the line (75.0). In one of those games, he made 11-of-16 shots to finish with 31 points in a 75-68 loss at Northern Colorado on Jan. 15. He scored 33 points three games earlier against Sacramento State on Jan. 4 when he finished with his best scoring game of the season. It was his first of more than 16 in nine games since getting 29 and 21 in back-to-back games in late November against Minnesota and UC Irvine, respectively.
“He was very selective in the first half -- he took nine shots but I thought all nine of them were really good, open shots,” said Earlywine after the Sac State game. “There will be some games where we need him to shoot more, but there are more games where we need him to run our team and get more shots for the other players who are shooting a high percentage. He needs to pick his spots, and tonight he did that.”
Valentine saw his average drop from a high of 20.3 after the UC Irvine game on Nov. 30 to 15.5 heading into EWU’s meeting with Sac State. In those previous eight games, the Texas Tech transfer had averaged 11.9 points while making just 36-of-113 shots for 32 percent and 14-of-46 three-pointers for 30 percent. He also had more turnovers (31) than assists (26) in those eight games.
In a 75-55 loss at Hawaii, he had his first double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds to go along with a team-high five assists. Valentine then scored 29 points against Minnesota on Nov. 26, and followed that with 21 in EWU’s 78-64 victory over UC Irvine on Nov. 30. He followed that by scoring 15 at Portland in a 63-58 Eastern victory, including 12 in the second half and 10 of Eastern’s last 11 points in the final 3:13. He made three of four shots from the floor and all four of his free throws in that stretch.
And in a 61-55 win over Montana State, Valentine scored 10 points in the first half and finished with 15 for the game to go along with four assists and three steals. He assisted on three-straight baskets in the second half to give EWU a four-point lead en route to a 33-22 scoring advantage in the second half.
“Benny trusted his teammates,” said head coach Kirk Earlywine after the MSU win. “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. It's good for him to trust his teammates like that."
En route to winning Big Sky Player of the Week honors on Nov. 25, Valentine averaged 19.3 points, 3.3 assists and 1.0 steals in EWU’s previous three games -- all victories over NCAA Division I opponents. He made 46.2 percent of his field goal attempts (18-of-39) and 68 percent of his free throws (19-of-28) as Eastern defeated UC Irvine (74-69), Texas Arlington (73-70) and Idaho (69-59).
He had 28 points and four assists versus UTA, a NCAA Tournament participant last year and the defending Southland Conference champion. Valentine is originally from Omaha, Neb., and is a 2005 graduate of Omaha Central High School.
“Against Texas Arlington and Minnesota we needed him to score for us,” said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. “In other games, we’ve just needed him to run our team. But against UC Irvine (on Nov. 30) we needed him to do both within the same game. In the first half when we were struggling, we needed him to score and he did. In the second half, we needed him to run our team, get the ball inside and do the things that got us the 18-point lead, and he did that as well. It’s very encouraging that he is gaining a feel and understanding for what our team needs at particular moments and be willing to do that.”
The Eagles found out against Idaho how important it was to have Valentine on the floor. He scored 13 points and had four assists in 29 minutes versus the Vandals, nailing all four of his free throws in the last two minutes while playing with four fouls. Eastern led by as many as 21 in the second half versus the Vandals, who were able to rally without Valentine in the game and pulled to within six with 2:19 left. He took just one shot in the first half, but EWU led 41-23.
"Idaho is quick and athletic all over the floor,” Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine said. “So whenever we took Benny out of the game, it certainly made things more difficult for us in terms of getting a good shot."
-- Moore Having Season of Highs and Lows -- Eastern 6-foot-9 junior center Brandon Moore is having a season of highs and lows, and his shooting percentages and fouls are a great indicator of his recent trials and tribulations. Moore is from Graham, Wash., and is a 2005 graduate of Bethel High School.
A career 60.8 percent free throw shooter entering the season, he has made 65.5 percent this year to increase his career mark to 62.5 percent. He has made 17 of his last 19 attempts heading into EWU’s Jan. 24 game at Portland State.
However, his field goal percentage has gone the opposite direction. Entering the year he had made 52.2 percent in his career, but this year it has dropped to 45.0 to give him a career mark of 49.5 percent.
On Jan. 11 in a 77-69 loss against Weber State, foul trouble limited Moore to 10 total minutes. He was 4-of-4 from the free throw line and 0-of-0 from the field after getting fouled on the only field goals he attempted. He had four points and five rebounds before fouling out. One game earlier he had no fouls in a 17-point, seven-rebound effort against Idaho State. Against Northern Colorado on Jan. 15, he was 8-of-10 from the line but just 1-of-8 from the field. On Jan. 21 versus Montana, he was 2-of-7 from the field.
Moore had his third double-double of the year with 22 points, 13 rebounds and a career-high three assists in EWU’s 90-87 win over Evergreen State on Dec. 22. Moore made 6-of-12 shots from the field and 10-of-13 free throws against the Geoducks, and seven of his rebounds came on the offensive end. The 6-foot-9 Moore came just one point from his career high of 23 points set as a freshman against Evergreen State. His assists tied his career high from that game.
Moore’s other double-doubles this season came against Idaho (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Texas Arlington (16 points, 11 rebounds), giving him five in his career. He had a near-miss at Boise State on Dec. 29 when he finished with 12 points and nine boards. He also has seven double figure rebounding performances as an Eagle.
Moore is the only Eagle to have started all 18 games this season and is averaging 10.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game to rank 18th and first, respectively, in the Big Sky Conference. In his 75-game career (35 as a starter), Moore has averaged 7.6 points and 5.3 rebounds while making just under 50 percent of his shots from the field.
-- Eagles Were an Early Leader in the Big Sky in Scoring Defense -- The Eagles currently rank sixth in the Big Sky Conference in scoring defense, allowing 69.7 per game (Montana leads at 66.9 per game). Before holding Boise State to 57 points on Dec. 29, the Eagles had allowed an average of 78.3 in their previous four games to fall out of the Big Sky Conference lead in scoring defense. Through eight games -- and a 6-2 record -- the Eagles were allowing just 66.1 to lead the league.
In their 10 losses this season, Eastern has allowed 72.4 points and 48.6 percent shooting. In EWU’s nine victories, those figures drop to 66.8 and 44.4. But recently, Eastern allowed 87 points in a win (Evergreen State) and just 57 in a loss (Boise State).
Eastern is 5-2 when it holds opponents to 65 points or fewer and 6-2 when it holds opponents to 43 percent shooting or less. The Eagles are 1-5 when allowing at least 75 points.
In its first six victories of the season, Eastern had allowed only 62.5 per game while holding opponents to 39.9 percent shooting from the field and 29.0 percent from the three-point stripe. But in their seventh win, a 90-87 triumph over Evergreen State, the Geoducks made 66 percent from both the field overall (35-of-53) and the three-point stripe (10-of-15). Eastern followed that by holding Boise State to 42 percent shooting overall (20-of-48) and 18 percent from the arc (2-of-11).
Ideally, Eastern would like to win with defense like it did in its league opener on Dec. 6. Eastern held Montana State to just 22 second-half points as the Bobcats made only 29 percent from the field after intermission. The result was Eastern’s best defensive performance of the season by allowing MSU just 55 total points, eclipsing the 58 Eastern allowed one game earlier against Portland in a 63-58 win. The Pilots scored only 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 we’re 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 against Portland, we did not give them points -- they had to earn them.”
-- Eagles Unbeaten When They Score 70 or More or Makes 45 Percent or Better -- Eastern is unbeaten thus far this season in a pair of important statistical categories. When the Eagles score at least 70 points, they are 6-0. When they make at least 45 percent of their shots they are 8-0.
In addition, the Eagles are 6-2 when they out-rebound opponents and 6-2 when they hold opponents to 31 rebounds or less. Eastern is also 6-3 when forcing more or equal turnovers and 4-0 when the Eagles force at least 15 turnovers.
-- DeLeon and Busch Finally Cleared to Play -- The 75-55 Hawaii loss on Dec. 13 marked the season debuts for returning 12-game starter Adris DeLeon and junior college transfer Chris Busch. Both missed the first eight games of the season before being officially cleared to play on Dec. 12 after final exams from fall quarter were completed and grades submitted.
DeLeon has averaged 5.1 points in an average of 15.3 minutes per game. He made his first start of the season against Sacramento State on Jan. 4 and responded with 17 points and three assists. Busch, who scored a team-high 13 at Washington on Dec. 20, is averaging 4.7 points and 2.4 rebounds in 16.5 minutes per game. Busch is a transfer from Merritt Junior College in California while DeLeon averaged 12.5 points and 3.1 assists in 27 games last year for EWU.
-- Eagles Win Three on Road, Six at Home -- The schedule, with just one occurrence of back-to-back road games until the start of league play, has started well for the Eagles. Eastern picked up road wins at UC Irvine, Portland and Sacramento State, and has won six of eight games at Reese Court.
But losing a pair of league home games -- 77-69 to Weber State on Jan. 11 and 63-50 to Montana on Jan. 21 -- were blows head coach Kirk Earlywine was hoping to avoid. Of the first 18 league games played, Weber’s victory was just the fifth road breakthrough. Two of the home losses at the time were owned by 0-4 Sac State.
“It’s becomes even more difficult when you give away a home game,” said Earlywine, whose team is trying to return to the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the first time since EWU had a nine-season streak of berths (1998-2006).
Last year, Eastern had only two home games in its first 11 outings of the season. As a result, Eastern was just 3-8 to start the season before going 8-9 in their next 17 games. The Eagles ended the season with a pair of road losses and finished the season 8-5 at Reese Court and 3-14 away from home.
-- Eagles Picked to Finish as High as Seventh -- The Eastern Washington University men’s basketball program has been picked to finish as high as seventh in the Big Sky Conference in preseason polls released Oct. 22 by the Big Sky Conference.
The league’s head coaches selected EWU seventh, while the media picked EWU to finish eighth in the nine-team league. Last year, the Eagles finished 11-19 overall and seventh in the league with a 6-10 mark under first-year head coach Kirk Earlywine.
The Eagles had only three players with NCAA Division I experience on their roster last year and a total of just eight players who participated in at least 15 games. This season, Eastern has a full roster of 14 players that include six returning letter winners. Returning starters are center Brandon Moore and guards Trey Gross and Gary Gibson.
-- Pre-Season Losses Lead to Big Sky Conference Wins -- In the last nine seasons (including the 2007-08 season), Eastern has entered Big Sky Conference play with a collective 45-67 (.401) record. Those difficult schedules have yielded an 81-53 (.604) Big Sky Conference record in that span. Eastern has finished third or better in the Big Sky regular season standings in six of the last nine years en route to a pair of regular season Big Sky titles, one Big Sky Tournament title and three-runner-up tourney finishes.
In 2007-08, Eastern entered conference play 5-8, which compares favorably to the previous eight seasons (most recent are listed first) -- 6-6, 5-8, 3-10, 4-9, 8-6, 6-8, 5-5, 3-7. One of Eastern’s worst pre-conference records was in 2003-04 (4-9), yet resulted in an 11-3 league mark, Big Sky regular season and tourney titles and the school's first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. In the 1999-2000 season -- EWU's final season under former head coach Steve Aggers -- the Eagles were just 3-7 before sharing the Big Sky Conference regular season title with Montana as they both finished 12-4 in conference play.
-- EWU-PSU Series History (Since 1983-84) -- Eastern has won five of the last seven meetings, including a 76-74 loss in Portland to end the 2007-08 season for the Eagles. Earlier in the year, Eastern won 58-57 in Cheney. The other PSU win in that seven-game stretch came by a 92-86 score in Cheney on Feb. 10, 2007. Eastern has come away victorious five of the last seven times the teams have met in Portland.
Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are now 16-10 versus the Vikings. All of the meetings have come since 1997 when PSU joined the Big Sky Conference. The Eagles have won 14 of the last 19 meetings, and Eastern is 10-3 in Cheney and 6-6 against PSU in Portland (0-1 on neutral courts) since 1983-84. Eastern leads the overall series 17-13, with EWU owning an 11-4 record in Cheney and 6-8 mark in Portland (0-1 on neutral courts) against the Vikings.