Feb. 15, 2008
The stakes are high.
Eastern Washington University's 69-57 victory over Weber State on Thursday (Feb. 14), coupled with Idaho State's 81-58 loss the same night at Portland State, has helped the EWU men's basketball team inch closer to a post-season playoff berth.
Although Eastern remains in seventh place in the league standings with a 5-8 conference record and 10-17 mark overall, the Eagles will battle 6-5/9-15 Idaho State on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time in the final home game of the season for the Eagles. It will also be the final home game in the EWU careers of seniors Kellen Williams and Marcus Hinton.
Only the top six teams in the league advance to the Big Sky Conference Tournament which begins on March 8. Last year in finishing 8-8 in the league, Eastern had its string of nine-straight berths snapped after it became the first Big Sky team since the league expanded to eight teams in the 1970-71 season to not qualify for the tourney with a .500 record or better.
After losing 74-64 earlier this season at Weber State, first-year Eagle head coach Kirk Earlywine registered his first win Thursday over his former school. Earlywine spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at WSU from 1999-2006. The victory propelled Eastern to within one game in the win column from fourth place and two games in the win column from second.
"This magnifies the importance of Saturday's game," said Earlywine of EWU's win and Idaho State's loss. "We felt like (the Weber State game) was a must win to keep our hopes alive to get into the conference tournament. From that standpoint, (the win) was most special, and it had nothing to do with my seven years at Weber State."
Although Eastern could still garner a playoff berth with a loss on Saturday, Eastern's best hope to qualify for the conference tournament is to beat the Bengals -- thus creating a season split for the two schools -- and hope for at least a sixth-place tie with ISU. Eastern could win a tiebreaker by virtue of its season-opening victory over Portland State, a team the Bengals were swept by.
Ties with Montana (6-5), Montana State (6-5) or Northern Arizona (7-5) do not go EWU's way because the Eagles were swept by all three of those schools. A tie with Weber State (7-4) wouldn't help either because, like the Eagles, the Wildcats defeated league-leader Portland State (9-2).
Following Saturday's game, Eastern will play just twice in a span of 17 days. Eastern plays another must-win game at Northern Colorado (4-8) on Saturday, Feb. 23 before ending the season at Portland State on Tuesday, March 4 in the final league game of the regular season.
Idaho State, meanwhile, plays four games after Saturday's contest. The Bengals host Montana State on Feb. 21 and Montana on Feb. 24 before ending the season at last-place Sacramento State (2-10) on Feb. 28 and Northern Arizona on March 1.
Putting Eastern in a must-win situation this week was the fact Eastern had lost three league games at home by margins of four, seven and two (average margin of 4.3). Five of EWU's league setbacks have come by four points or less. Eastern's eight league losses are by an average of 7.8 points per game, and just 6.3 if an 80-61 loss at Montana is eliminated.
Saturday, the Eagles host an Idaho State team that edged them 58-56 earlier this season in Pocatello in a game in which EWU led early 18-4. Eastern missed three shots down the stretch with the game up for grabs and also misfired on four free throws in the final five minutes that could have made a difference.
Meanwhile, Idaho State made three free throws in the last 37 seconds to clinch its second league victory in as many tries. Milan Stanojevic had five three-pointers to finish with 19 points for EWU, and Idaho State junior Matt Stucki had 11 points and 10 assists to lead ISU. Logan Kinghorn, Lucas Steijn and Donnie Carson also combined for 38 points and 16 rebounds for the Bengals after entering the game with a combined average of just over 15 points and less than eight boards per outing.
"The biggest problem that Idaho State presents is their guards are 6-5 and 6-6," explained Earlywine of Stucki and Amorrow Morgan. "They do a good job of running stuff to get them to the post. We've got to do a better job than we did the first time defending their two big guards in the post. We've got to do a better job offensively of attacking, even though we got beat in a very close game at their place and we had an 18-4 lead. We were not sharp at all and we were not good on offense. We did a good job of guarding them at their place for the most part, and we were terrible on offense. So we've got to do a better job attacking their defense."
Williams and Hinton will be playing in the final home games of their Eastern careers on Saturday.
Williams, a 2003 graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle, Wash., has nearly averaged a double-double at home this season, with averages of 15.5 points and 9.2 rebounds on 53 percent shooting from the field. For the season, Williams is averaging 13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds on 50 percent shooting to make him a bonafide candidate for All-Big Sky Conference honors. He has averaged 9.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and has made 52 percent of his shots in his 84-game career (67 as a starter).
Hinton, a 2004 graduate of Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., is averaging 5.6 points this season and 5.8 in his 52-game EWU career (28 as a starter). Last year's Reese Court meeting against ISU was one to remember as he scored 24 points and hit a game-winning three-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining in EWU's 82-79 victory over the Bengals. He made a school-record 6-of-6 three-pointers in the win versus ISU and 10-of-10 free throws in the first meeting when he finished with 13 points.
"We would like to see both of those players go out with wins," Earlywine said. "For what those two players have given our program and the university in terms of how they've conducted themselves and how they've played, I would hope the fans and students will come out and show some appreciation for these two players."
Eastern, with six players who had never played NCAA Division I basketball before -- let alone a Big Sky Conference game -- hit its high point with a 3-3 league record in mid-January. At that time, Eastern was 8-12 overall and had won seven of its last 14 games after a 1-5 start to the season. Since the 3-3 start, Eastern lost four in a row but has won two of its last three.
Before a 59-57 road win at Sacramento State on Feb. 7, Eastern's last win was a 91-85 overtime victory over Northern Colorado on Jan. 17. Eastern's other league victories were home wins versus Sacramento State (76-52 on Jan. 5) and Portland State (58-57 on Dec. 22). The Eagles versus Vikings league match-up represented the earliest BSC start in school history for EWU.
Eastern had a 15-14 finish to the 2006-07 season as the last three EWU seasons 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. Eastern became the first school since the league expanded in 1970-71 (it has had at least eight teams ever since), to have a .500 record and not place in the top six.
EWU & ISU in the Big Sky: Eastern features two of the Big Sky Conference's top 10 leading scorers in senior Kellen Williams (sixth, 13.4) and Adris DeLeon (11th, 12.1). Williams is also second in rebounding (8.4), seventh in field goal shooting (.502), 11th in steals (1.11) and first in minutes played (35.6). DeLeon is also seventh in assists (3.1) and eighth in free throw percentage (.773).
In addition, Milan Stanojevic leads the Big Sky with a total of 63 three-pointers made (2.3 per game to rank third) and ranks 26th in scoring (8.4). Brandon Moore is 11th in rebounding (5.8) and 10th in blocked shots (0.7). Starting point guard Gary Gibson is 13th in assists (2.4) and 11th in steals (1.11).
Eastern's top team rankings are second in turnover margin (+0.89 per game), third in scoring defense (66.8), third in three-pointers made per game (7.6), third in free throw shooting (.727) and third in three-point field goal defense (.355). Eastern, with seven or less turnovers in three of its last eighth games, is second in the league in turnovers committed with an average of 13.6 per game.
Individually, Idaho State is led by Matt Stucki with an 11.6 scoring average that ranks 13th in the league, with Amorrow Morgan ranking 20th (9.9). Stucki also ranks fourth in the league in assists (3.6) and Logan Kinghorn is first in free throw percentage (.839) and 14th in rebounding (4.8).
Idaho State is ranked second in the league in field goal percentage defense (.435), but doesn't rank in the top four in any other categories. The Bengals are last in the league in scoring offense (60.1), three-pointers made per game (4.4) and three-point percentage (.306).
In league games only, the Bengals have allowed conference opponents to make just 40.5 percent of their shots against them -- tops in the league. Eastern counters with Williams, who has averaged a league-leading 3.23 offensive rebounds in 13 league games (3.0 overall to also rank first in the BSC).