Eagles place seventh in the final league standings as both teams finish out of the top six needed to make the postseason
It was all about the seniors.
In a battle for seventh place in the final Big Sky Conference game for both teams, Eastern Washington University men's basketball team defeated Idaho State 79-71 Saturday (Feb. 27) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles ended their season 9-21 overall and 5-11 in the Big Sky, while the Bengals finished 7-22 overall and 4-12 in the league. Neither team qualified for the six-team Big Sky Conference Tournament that starts on March 6.
Saturday's game was the final home appearance for five Eastern seniors -- Brandon Moore, Mark Dunn, Matthew Brunell, Benny Valentine and Gary Gibson. The seniors combined for 53 points, 23 rebounds and 14 assists as the Eagles took the lead for good late in the first half and held on for the eight-point victory.
"We were trying to reward them for what they have done for Eastern Washington University, and we wanted to make sure we won the game," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. "The seniors did the job, and I'm glad that they did."
Dunn and Gibson each finished with 14 points, with Gibson also adding five assists as he had season highs in both categories. Brunell added nine points, four rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and two steals in 34 minutes of playing time. Moore chipped in eight points and 12 rebounds, and Valentine finished with eight points, three assists, three steals and four rebounds.
Moore is the lone four-year letter winner in the group, and ended his career with 116 career games played (third in school history), 690 rebounds (fourth), 87 blocked shots (second) and 961 points.
Earlywine had high praise for Brunell, a three-year letter winner and hometown product who graduated from Cheney (Wash.) High School in 2006.
"He was outstanding -- there was no question that he was the key to the win," said Earlywine. "All of those seniors played well, and Matt played extraordinarily well on both ends of the floor."
After five ties and eight lead changes, the Eagles used a late 10-0 run to take a 42-32 lead at halftime. Kevin Winford scored five of EWU's points in the run, and Jeffrey Forbes added one of his three treys in the half.
Eastern led by as many as 16 in the second half, but a 10-0 run cut the lead to five at 61-56 with 7:22 remaining. Eastern bumped the lead back to 13 before ISU pulled to within six with 30 seconds left. However, Eastern closed out the win with a pair of free throws each by Valentine and Dunn, and a layup by Gibson.
"We've had a couple of times this year where we've let leads slip through our fingers. I thought it was important that we come out in the second half and try to build on that lead. We didn't let Idaho State cut into that lead immediately in the second half. And that was due to the play of the seniors."
Eastern finished the game making 46.4 percent of its shots from the field, compared to 49.1 percent for ISU. Eastern had a 33-27 edge in rebounding.
One night earlier in an 85-57 loss to Weber State, Eastern made just 28.8 percent of its shots from the field, its lowest shooting percentage in league play and the third-lowest this season.
The Bengals had knocked off Eastern 80-74 on Jan. 22 in a game in which ISU out-scored EWU 23-4 from the free throw line. Eastern was called for 24 fouls compared to 13 for the Bengals, and took 21 less free throws (10-31) to spoil a 49 percent shooting night for EWU.
Prior to the Weber State loss, Eastern was coming off a pair of road losses last week, falling 58-54 at Northern Colorado on Thursday (Feb. 18) and 74-71 in overtime to Northern Arizona on Saturday (Feb. 20). The Eagles led by at least eight points in the second half of each game before succumbing in the final seconds on game-winning three-point shots.
Both of those losses -- as well as four during a recent seven-game losing streak -- were decided by six points or less. In the 2009-10 season, 16 of 30 Eastern games were decided by six points or less. EWU was 6-10 in those 16 nail-biters.