March 1, 2013

Eagles Lose Heartbreaking Game in Greeley, 67-66

Second-place UNC forces a turnover, corrals an offensive rebound and converts a field goal all in final 30 seconds, handing Eastern an upsetting loss to open a tough two-game road trip

With 1:07 left to play on Thursday (Feb. 28) night in Greeley, Colo., the Eastern Washington University women’s basketball team enjoyed a five-point lead on second-place Northern Colorado. But over the next 67 seconds, a series of unfortunate events unfolded for Eastern, and the Eagles ended up on the losing end of nail-biting Big Sky women’s basketball showdown. The Bears survived on their home floor with a 67-66 decision.

Eastern falls to 15-11 on the year, and 11-6 in Big Sky Conference play, and is now tied for third place with Idaho State (16-10, 11-6) in the Big Sky standings. Northern Colorado remains in second with a 14-4 league record, 17-10 overall. The Bears are 1/2 game behind conference-leading Montana (20-6, 14-3).

“We battled as hard as anyone could battle,” said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. “I thought we did everything we could to win that basketball game, and to come up short in the way we did is extremely painful. I hurt for every single player we have right now.”

After trailing UNC by five points at the 6:51-mark of the second half, Eastern Washington fought back to take a 63-61 lead with 90 seconds to play.

Junior Aubrey Ashenfelter completed an old-fashioned three-point play to extend her team’s lead to 66-61 with just 1:07 remaining. But Northern Colorado was able to answer on its next possession, as sophomore center Stephanie Lee converted a field goal in the paint. At that point, things started to go awry for EWU.

With 37 ticks left on the clock, UNC came up with a big steal right in front of Eastern's bench, and junior guard D’Shara Strange was able to take advantage, scoring a quick basket to pull the Bears within one at 66-65. On the inbounds, Eastern was able to get the ball in the hands of its best free-throw shooter Lexie Nelson, but she was immediately swarmed by three Bears, and a jump ball was called, with possession going to UNC.

Northern Colorado’s Victoria Timm missed her field goal attempt, but on a scramble for the rebound, the Bears collected the offensive board, and with just two seconds left, Strange found some open space and hit a short jumper off the backboard.

EWU launched a last-second three, but it was off the mark, as the Bears prevailed by the narrow one-point margin.

“It was like a boxing match out there,” said Schuller. “They’d hit us, and we’d come back and hit them. This is one of the best teams in the league, and I thought we played extremely hard. We stepped up in the second half and shot the ball extremely well. That is why this one hurts so bad because when you see your team fight so hard and think they’re deserving of a win, and then come up just short, it is really tough to swallow.”

The Eagles shot a blistering 69.6 percent in the second half, including a 5-of-7 effort from beyond the arc. Ashenfelter was a perfect 5-of-5 in the second period for 13 points, while three other Eagles contributed at least five points in the rally.

But EWU had 14 turnovers in the second half, compared to just four for UNC. The Bears scored 20 points off those Eagle miscues, while also tallying 11 second-chance points.

Ashenfelter finished as the leading scorer for the Eags with 15, while sophomore point guard Kylie Huerta contributed 14 points on impressive 6-of-8 shooting from the floor. She also had six assists with just one turnover in 35 minutes of work.

Junior Laura Hughes and senior Carrie Ojeda joined Ashenfelter and Huerta in double figures, as the two post players finished with 13 and 10 points, respectively.

Sophomore Melissa Williams led EWU on the glass, as she has 11 other times this season. She ended up with six boards, all on the defensive end.

EWU split with Northern Colorado in the 2012-13 regular-season series, after a 63-38 blowout win in Cheney on Jan. 19. The all-time series between the two teams now stands at 10-4, in favor of UNC.

The Eagles will have a quick turnaround, as they make the trek to Grand Forks, N.D., for a 10 a.m. tipoff with North Dakota on Saturday (March 2) at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.

“For us, we know what we’re capable of doing,” said Schuller. “We will learn from this. We want to win a conference tournament title. We will remember how this feels right now, and in two weeks at the championship, we will be ready to finish games.”

The 2013 Big Sky Conference Tournament will be held March 14-16 at the site of the regular-season champion. If both the Montana men and women end up winning the title, resulting in both tournaments being held in Missoula, the women will play their quarterfinal games on Wednesday, March 13.

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