Eastern determined to defend home court when it welcomes two of the league’s most lethal offensive teams to Cheney
The Eastern Washington University women’s basketball team returns home this week to face the only two Big Sky teams that it has yet to beat in the 2012-13 season.
In order to avoid a regular-season sweep by the Hornets of Sac State and the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona, EWU will have to dial up the defense, as these two opponents represent the highest scoring team and the most efficient shooting team in the Big Sky Conference.
Eastern (12-9, 8-4 Big Sky) hosts Sacramento State (12-8, 7-4) on Thursday (Feb. 7) at 6:05 p.m. for Staff/Faculty Appreciation Day at Reese Court. EWU then takes on Northern Arizona (5-15, 4-7) on Saturday (Feb. 9) at 2:05 p.m. on Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Fans who wear pink to the game will receive $2 admission, and donations for the American Cancer Society will be accepted.
When EWU played Sac State and NAU on the road earlier this year, the Eagles struggled to slow down their high-powered offenses. The Hornets are the No. 1 scoring team in the league, averaging 73.1 points per game, while the Lumberjacks are the most efficient team, shooting the ball at 41.2 percent from the field this season. Both teams put up more than 80 points on EWU the first time they played. Eastern has only given up 80+ points to one other team this entire season, and that was No. 5 California.
“For us, it will all start on the defensive end,” said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. “When we played at their place, we did not do a good job defensively against either team, and I think that translated to the offensive end. NAU and Sac are different teams, but both really dangerous. Sac has so many weapons offensively. Fantasia [Hilliard] is playing fabulous right now, Allie Moreno we know can shoot the lights out, and then there’s Kylie Kuhns who is a phenomenal athlete and can just make things happen. We know we are going to have our hands full. And then we get to turn around and play NAU, who has the league’s leading scorer, so that will hold its own set of challenges.”
It is no surprise that the Hornets score more points than any other team in the league, considering they take significantly more shots than every other Big Sky squad. Because of its notorious fast-paced style, Sac State averages seven more shots per game than any team, and at least 10 more shots than seven of them. Earlier in the month, Sac put up 103 points against Weber State - the most points for any team in the Big Sky this season. Slowing down that lethal offense will be key for Eastern as it looks for a better result against the Hornets the second time around.
“Sac is a team that wants to play a certain way, at a certain pace,” said Schuller. “We need to be able to do a better job of dictating the tempo and playing the way that we want to play. That will be the No. 1 focus this week - dictating tempo. I think if we can do that on the defensive end, it will vitalize our offense.”
While the Lumberjacks employ a more manageable tempo, they are equally as dangerous on the offensive end because of their efficiency in shooting the ball.
Led by one of the Big Sky’s most prolific all-time scorers, NAU averages 62.0 points per game on a league-leading 41.2 percent from the field. Senior guard Amy Patton not only leads the Big Sky Conference in scoring, but ranks among the top 25 nationally, averaging 19.4 points per game. She has scored 1,806 career points to rank sixth in the Big Sky record book.
In the first meeting of the year between the Eagles and Jacks, NAU shot 52 percent for the game, and a blistering 63 percent in the second half. Eastern was actually ahead by three points at halftime, but Northern Arizona outscored the Eags in the second half by 18. NAU made 8-of-15 from long range, and had five different players with 10 or more points. Patton had a double-double of 23 points and 11 rebounds.
But prior to losing earlier this month in Flagstaff, the Eagles had won six-straight against NAU. Under Schuller, the Eagles are 15-9 against both Northern Arizona and Sacramento State
Although these two upcoming opponents have proved to be difficult to defend, Eastern Washington also poses its own threat in terms of offensive prowess. EWU is the best 3-point shooting team in the Big Sky, and ranks 22nd nationally, shooting 35.8 percent from beyond the arc. In overall field goal percentage, Eastern is just barely trailing NAU at 40.7 percent for the season.
Eastern is coming off a tough loss at the home of Big Sky leader Montana, but EWU had won its previous five Big Sky games in a row. During the winning streak, the Eagles were averaging nearly 71 points per game, while shooting 45 percent from the field, 44 percent from three and 85 percent from the free throw line.
Now back at home on the friendly and familiar Reese Court, Eastern will look to use the home court advantage to continue climbing toward the summit of the Big Sky.
“In this conference, you need to at least split games on the road as much you can, and then take care of business at home,” said Schuller. “Although Saturday at Montana was not the result we wanted, we did come out with a split on what I believe is the toughest trip in the conference. So now, it is just as vital for us to take care of our business at home this weekend.”
Big Sky Breakdown
With 12 games down and eight to go, Eastern Washington is in a solid position moving forward. The 2013 Big Sky Conference tournament will feature seven teams this year, with the No. 1 seed earning bye to the semifinals. The championship will be held at the site of the regular-season champion. Right now, six teams have won seven or more league games, while four others seem to be vying for that final spot with four wins each at this point.
Eastern is currently two games back from Big Sky leading Montana, who boats a 10-2 league record. Northern Colorado is in second at 8-3, followed closely by EWU and Montana State, who are tied for third with the same 8-4 record. If Eastern wins both games this weekend, the Eagles will have at least split with every team in the Big Sky - a result that could be advantageous when it comes to tiebreakers and determining postseason positioning, as no team has the head-to-head sweep card to play against the Eags.
Heading into week seven of the league season, Sac State is a mere 1/2 game behind the Eags and Bobcats at 7-4, followed closely by Idaho State at 7-5. Southern Utah (4-6), Portland State (4-8) and North Dakota (4-8) round out the top nine.