Cooper sets EWU career and single-game steals records, while Ryan dazzles with 31 points, to lead Eastern to victory in Big Sky opener
It was a record-setting night for the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team, but the game still came down to the wire. In their 2011-12 Big Sky Conference debut against Montana State, the Eagles outlasted the Bobcats, 79-73, on Thursday (Dec. 29) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
As a team, Eastern broke a 32-year-old school record with 22 steals against the Bobcats. With seven of those 22 steals, Chene Cooper broke the 27-year-old individual career steals record, as she now has 218 in her tenure. Cooper surpassed the previous record of 212, held by Lisa Comstock, who played from 1982-85. Cooper also equaled the single-game record of seven set on six previous occasions.
"Our goal was to come out and run as few of offensive sets as we had to and try to get everything in transition," said Eastern head coach Wendy Schuller after her team forced 28 MSU turnovers, including 21 in the first half. "We wanted to push the ball, pressure the ball and play our kind of game. We came out with a lot of energy and had an early run, then we got some steals and that gave us more energy and momentum. It was a fun game."
Along with her seven steals, the 5-foot-0 Cooper had 13 points and 11 assists for her third double-double of the season, and also contributed six rebounds. She had four steals in the first period, including three in the final two minutes, which gave Eastern the comfortable 13-point advantage. She had only two turnovers in 35 minutes of action.
"She makes us go and was all over the place tonight right to the finish," said Schuller. "She played hard tonight and played a lot of minutes – I was very proud of her effort. She's pretty amazing. Inch for inch she's the best player in America."
Senior Brianne Ryan scored nearly half of her team's points, as she finished with 31 -- the most of any player in the Big Sky this season and just two shy of her career high. Ryan drained four 3-pointers in the first half to go into the locker room with 22 points. She also had three steals in the first period, as did freshman Melissa Williams.
"Brianne had a phenomenal game," praised Schuller. "She runs right with Coop – Brianne runs extremely hard and is one of the best conditioned players I've ever coached. When you can hit threes in transition like that and get to the rim like she can, it's pretty exciting. Besides what she does offensively for us, she always guards the other team's best player. We had a tremendous amount of respect coming into the game for (MSU guard Katie) Bussey – I think she's a great, great player. But Brianne really did a nice job of defending her."
Eastern junior Carrie Ojeda equaled her career high with 19 points, scoring nine in the first half and 10 in the second. She made 7-of-11 shots from the field and all five of her free throws, and also contributed six rebounds, three steals, two assists and a blocked shot.
"Carrie has come such a long way," said Schuller. "She is a presence for us in the paint and that is something we really need to have. She did a wonderful job tonight defensively and offensively being aggressive and attacking. She's just gaining more and more confidence."
After forcing 21 turnovers in the first half alone and scoring 26 points off Bobcat miscues, Eastern enjoyed a 13-point lead at intermission. The Bobcats hit 6-of-10 3-pointers in the first period, and finished the half shooting 55 percent from the field, but because of Eastern's active hands, MSU took almost half as many shots as the home team.
"We've built this team to be athletic, aggressive and to fly around," explained Schuller. "We understand that sometimes teams are going to get wide-open threes and make some shots. At halftime we saw they made 55 percent of their shots, but that was worth it given the fact they had 21 turnovers. We'll take that trade-off."
Eastern then built its advantage to 15 at the 14:35 mark of the second period, but at that point, Montana State slowly started to chip away at the lead. The Bobcats never managed to take over the lead, but they were able to make it a one-possession game with just over one minute remaining.
Ojeda was fouled with 52 ticks remaining, sending her to the line for two crucial free throws. The Tacoma, Wash., native hit them both to give EWU a 75-70 lead.
The Bobcats missed their two final attempts from the field, while Eastern went on to make 4-of-6 free throws to seal its first conference win of the season.
Eastern was 17-of-38 in the first half and 4-of-13 from 3-point range - all of which came off the hand of Ryan.
After EWU led early 14-5, Montana State tied the game at the 7:57 mark of the first half with one of its six 3-pointers, but Eastern forced seven turnovers over the next four minutes to open up an eight-point lead at 30-22. The Eagles continued to surge, as it earned its first double-digit (40-29) lead with 1:36 remaining. Cooper and Ryan converted two fast break layups in the final minute to give Eastern a 44-31 lead at intermission. EWU is now 7-1 this season when leading at the half.
The Eagles return to Big Sky Conference action on Monday (Jan. 2) when they host perennial league powerhouse Montana at 6:05 p.m. at Reese Court.
"We know that Montana is Montana – they have great inside players and seniors who want to win a championship," said Schuller. "We know we'll have our hands full on Monday night."