February 7, 2007

Stuckey Scores 34 as Eagles Beat League Leaders

Feb. 7, 2007

Home sweet home, indeed.

Thanks to a season-high 34 points by sophomore Rodney Stuckey, Eastern Washington University opened a four-game Big Sky Conference men's basketball homestand with a huge 89-74 victory over league-leading Weber State Wednesday (Feb. 7) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

The win helped keep Eastern's postseason playoff hopes alive as the Eagles improved to 12-13 overall and 6-7 in the Big Sky heading into Saturday's pivotal home game versus Portland State. Eastern is currently in seventh and PSU is sixth, with the top six teams advancing to the Big Sky Conference Tournament that starts on March 3.

Weber State fell to 9-4 in the conference and 16-10 overall, but are still two games in the win column ahead of 7-4 Montana.

"I'm very pleased with our effort tonight," said Eagle head coach Mike Burns. "For our team to go through their recent losing streak and respond like they did tonight with this effort speaks volumes of our team."

"Tonight was a home game and we were in a must-win situation, so to come out on top under those circumstances was huge," added Burns. "If we lose tonight, then, boom, we are in a tailspin. It's not an easy thing to respond to that kind of pressure, but our guys responded very well tonight."

Stuckey, ranked seventh in NCAA Division I entering the game with a 23.8 scoring average, was again remarkable as he also finished with seven rebounds, six assists and four steals. He made 10-of-19 shots from the floor and 12-of-14 free throws as he recorded the 13th 30-point game of his career and equaled the 14th-most points in school history. His previous career high this season was 33 against Lewis-Clark State.

Stuckey also broke his single season record for free throws made. Last year, Stuckey made 171-of-225 from the charity stripe for 76.0 percent, shattering the school record for makes (145) and attempts (190). This year he is 182-of-214 for 85.0 percent, and needs just 11 attempts to equal the attempts record as well.

Eastern had a 41-19 advantage on the boards, and made 55 percent of its shots from the field. Eastern made 64 percent in the second half while Weber cooled off to shoot just 42 percent after intermission and 48 percent in the game. On Jan. 27 in a 93-84 loss to the Wildcats, Weber State made 67 percent form the field.

Both Stuckey and Weber State's Juan Pable Silveira scored 20 points in the first half en route to a 42-all deadlock at intermission. Stuckey scored 14 points after halftime but Silveira scored only five in the second half to finish the game with 25.

"I thought we had a lot more defensive energy tonight than we have had in the past and we rebounded pretty well," said Burns. "We limited Weber State to one shot and we did a better job at covering up their shooters, Juan Pablo Silveira was absolutely on fire in the first half and we were getting stuck on some screens that were leaving him wide open. We did a better job in the second half of fighting through those screens and preventing the easy shot."

Eastern led the entire second half, scoring the first five points to open a 47-42 cushion. Weber State cut the lead to one twice, but Eastern built a 70-60 advantage with 9:12 to play. The closest the Wildcats came after that was seven, and Eastern had its biggest lead of the night at 16 with 1:08 to play.

Paul Butorac scored 12 points with five rebounds, Michael Taylor scored 11 and Matt Penoncello added 10 points and three assists. Kellen Williams had a team-high 10 rebounds to go along with four points and three assists.

"We stopped playing zone defense in the second half because in the first half Weber State was 7-of-8 from three," explained Burns, whose team held WSU to 4-of-9 shooting from the three-point stripe in the second half. "And even though we were getting stuck on some screens they still had to make those shots and probably five of those seven were contested. When they are shooting like that it kind of eliminates zone defense as an option just because with their big guys they can put five guys on the court that can hit that three pointer, so we had to put the zone defense to bed at halftime tonight."

Portland State is perhaps Eastern's chief challenger for a top six finish. Having already defeated the Vikings 88-70 on Jan. 13, a win this week would give Eastern a key tie-breaking advantage at the end of the season. Sixth-place Portland State is 6-6 in the league and 15-10 overall heading into its Thursday (Feb. 8) home game against Weber State.

Eastern controls its own destiny only versus PSU, meaning a 9-7 finish would assure the Eagles of a tournament berth. It would seem, based on history, that even an 8-8 record should be good enough for EWU to get into the tournament. Since the league expanded in 1970-71 (it has had at least eight teams ever since), a .500 record has always been good enough for a top six finish.

However, the Big Sky is as competitive as ever this year and now has nine members with the addition of Northern Colorado. So there are most definitely several scenarios that could have teams -- the Eagles included --- finishing 8-8 and not advancing. In fact, PSU could finish 9-7 and get edged out by EWU for the sixth and final berth.

"If we can beat Portland State on our home floor we can have the hammer on them, much the same way Montana State and Northern Arizona have the hammer on us," said Burns of the tiebreaker advantages of sweeping the season series against an opponent.

The top six teams in the nine-team league advance to the Big Sky Conference Tournament. The quarterfinals take place on March 3 and are hosted by the No. 3 and 4 seeds. The winners of those two games and the top two teams in the regular season standings receive byes to the semifinals on March 6. The semifinals, as well as the nationally-televised championship game the next night, are hosted by the regular season champion.

Eastern and sensational sophomore Rodney Stuckey are looking forward to spending less time on the road and more time at home in the next three weeks. Ranked seventh in NCAA Division I in scoring (currently 24.2 per game), Stuckey has scored 115 points (28.8 average) in four games against Portland State. Included was 38 in last year's home victory over the Vikings in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Earlier this season, Stuckey had 24 points and eight rebounds at PSU, and had 29 points and a career-high 10 assists at Weber State.

The Eagles are now 3-5 on the road and 3-2 at home in league games thus far. During the brutal road stretch, Eastern logged 6,557 miles during the five-week stretch of games. Between Jan. 3 and Feb. 3, Eastern was on the road 19 of 32 days.

"I've never been through a stretch like this," said Burns. "Even through the years we've never had a non-conference stretch this difficult. To have eight out of 10 on the road is tough and fatiguing. Just to be back home and get a chance to rest our guys will be great for us."

Overall, Eastern is now 4-11 away from home this season, with road victories at Sacramento State, Portland State, Northern Colorado and an 87-66 romp at Portland on Dec. 9. Among Eastern's road losses are setbacks to Gonzaga, UNLV, Washington, Santa Clara and Oregon -- all with at least nine wins each in non-league play. Three of those teams are or have been nationally ranked.

Until last week, Eastern had earned splits in all five conference weekends of action. Included were home splits that included key losses to Montana State (82-79 on Dec. 28) and Northern Arizona (91-80 on Jan. 18).

Last year the Eagles were 6-1 at home in the Big Sky and were 3-4 on the road to finish third in the league at 9-5. Eastern beat Portland State in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament, but fell to eventual champion Montana in overtime in the semifinals.

The Vikings have five players ranked in the top 28 in the league in scoring, with all averaging between 9.2 and 13.4 points per game. Dupree Lucas is averaging 13.4 points per game as well as 3.6 assists and 1.4 steals. He led PSU with 16 points in the first meeting against Eastern. Scott Morrison averages 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and a league-leading 2.0 blocked shots per game, but he was held to four points, five boards and one block in the previous meeting.

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