Next up for Eagles is trip to Portland State Saturday in EWU's earliest Big Sky start in school history
Senior Mark Dunn scored a career-high 23 points as the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team trounced NAIA Division II independent Walla Walla University 89-61 Tuesday (Dec. 1) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash., in the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
That game was the final warm-up for the Eagles before the start of Big Sky Conference play on Saturday (Dec. 5) -- the earliest it's ever been for Eastern. Eastern travels to Portland, Ore., to face Portland State in the Big Sky opener for both schools. So far this season, the Eagles are 3-4 and PSU is 1-4 heading into its game against Portland on Dec. 2. Walla Walla is now 2-9.
Eastern led from start to finish against Walla Walla, with Dunn scoring 17 of his points in the first half as EWU opened a 50-32 lead. He was one of four Eagles to score in double figures in the game as the largest lead for the Eagles came with 4:45 left at 32 points (86-54).
Other Eagles in double figures included senior Benny Valentine with 15, freshman Glen Dean with 12 and freshman Kevin Winford with 11. Valentine and freshman Jeffrey Forbes each had seven assists, and freshman Abebe Demissie chipped in five assists, six points and 10 rebounds. Alden Gibbs had four steals and a game-high 15 rebounds.
Valentine made 5-of-12 shots from the field with a trio of three-pointers, and also had seven rebounds and a pair of steals.
"I thought Benny Valentine did a terrific job of sticking to the way we want him to play," Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine said. "He didn't take bad shots, and he kept the ball moving and created shots for his teammates. The challenge now for him is to play the right way in a big game and a tight game, which they are all going to be from now on."
Despite playing without a pair of starting post players out with ankle injuries -- Brandon Moore and Matthew Brunell -- Eastern out-rebounded the Wolves 53-32. The Eagles also held them to 34 percent shooting, including just 27 percent in the second half.
The Eagles made 45 percent of their shots in the game, including a 48 percent first half and 44 percent after intermission. Eastern, however, made only 7-of-27 three-pointers for 26 percent, and had 17 turnovers.
Eagles 2-0 in December League Openers -- The Dec. 5 start to league play represents the earliest Big Sky Conference opener in school history. Last year, the Eagles opened league play on Dec. 6 with a 61-55 home win over Montana State, and the previous season opened on Dec. 22 with a 58-57 home victory over Portland State. However, both seasons the Eagles failed to qualify for the six-team Big Sky Conference Tournament.
Eastern, picked to finish eighth in the league race by both the media and coaches, takes on PSU in its first league game. The Vikings were selected to finish second by the media and fourth by the coaches. Despite EWU's success in its opener the last two years, Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine would much rather open league play in the more traditional month of January, not just a few weeks into the season.
"I've made my feelings pretty well known about playing the first conference game in early December," he explained. "But we've actually been ready to play that game the last two seasons. I shouldn't be too critical because we've won our opener each of the past two years."
Following the PSU game, Eastern will resume league play on Dec. 31. Eastern is hoping its five senior letter winners and talented newcomers will help the Eagles earn their first Big Sky Conference Tournament berth in four seasons when that event takes place on March 6, 9 and 10. However, Earlywine expects several other league teams to feature even more returning starters and experience.
"The league is going to be very, very good," he said. "Top to bottom, it may be as good as it's been in the last 10 years. I told our team after our last game last season that our challenge was to go catch the other teams in the league. Nobody is backing up, so we have to go catch them. Our focus has been on doing what we have to do to improve and not count on other teams to stub their toe."
Earlywine has been in the Big Sky Conference for nearly 10 years now, dating back to 1999 when he became an assistant at Weber State. He knows the January to March grind in the league is difficult, but it's made even more difficult this season with the cost-saving measure of playing most weekend doubleheaders on Friday/Saturday instead of Thursday/Saturday.
"The travel difficulties haven't changed - we still have nine institutions spread over eight states," he said. "You go from sea level to altitude, and one time zone to another. It's tough."
EWU-PSU Series History (Since 1983-84) -- Eastern has lost the last three meetings, including losses last year in Portland (83-61 on Jan. 24) and in Cheney (66-62 in overtime on Feb. 24). Before that, Eastern had won five of the last six meetings.
Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are now 16-11 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 20 meetings, and Eastern is 10-4 in Cheney and 6-6 against PSU in Portland (0-1 on neutral courts) since 1983-84. Eastern leads the overall series 17-14, with EWU owning an 11-5 record in Cheney and 6-8 mark in Portland (0-1 on neutral courts) against the Vikings.