Feb. 7, 2008
It was a homecoming that Trey Gross will always remember.
The Eastern Washington University true freshman sank two free throws with 2.6 seconds to play to give the Eagles a 59-57 victory at Sacramento State on Thursday (Feb. 7) in a Big Sky Conference men's basketball game at the Hornets Nest in Sacramento, Calif.
The Eagles, coming off a winless four-game stretch against the Montana schools, recorded its first league road win in five tries this season to remain alive for a berth in the league's post-season tournament. Gross finished with eight points and added a pair of blocked shots and two rebounds.
"Trey made a senior play," said Earlywine of the 2007 graduate of Edison High School. "He made the same caliber of play that Kellen Williams made at the end of the Portland State game to win that game for us. He's an 18-year-old freshman, and for him to do that in front of his family and high school friends was pretty neat."
Eastern trailed 57-55 before Brandon Moore knotted the game by making 2-of-4 free throws. Sac State freshman Vinnie McGhee missed the front end of a one-plus-one bonus free throw opportunity with 21 seconds to set up EWU's game-winning play.
"We wanted to get to a high ball screen for Trey," Earlywine explained. "We very disjointed getting to what we wanted, but eventually we did. Brandon set a good screen for Trey, he went to the rim, Sac State was a little late on their rotation and they stepped in and fouled him."
"We wanted to shoot the ball with less than five seconds to go," Earlywine added. "We didn't want to give them any opportunity at all to run it back down to the other end and score. We did that -- we handled that end-of-the-game situation pretty well."
Senior Kellen Williams recorded his 10th double-double of the season with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Moore added 11 points and five rebounds, including 3-of-6 free throws in the final 3:18 to help Eastern improve to 4-7 in the league and 9-16 overall. The Hornets dropped to 2-8 in the Big Sky and 4-17 on the season.
The Eagles had 12 turnovers and missed their first 11 three-point attempts in the opening 20 minutes to trail at halftime 31-25. But EWU had just two turnovers in the second half and overcame a 41 percent shooting night from the floor, including just 3-of-17 three-point attempts.
"Nothing came easy for us," Earlywine said. "It was a bumpy, uneven, disjointed affair for both teams. For us to be able to persevere and come out with a win was terrific. Maybe this will be the one to get us kind of over the hump by being able to finish off a game on the road."
Eastern continues its road trip at Northern Arizona on Sunday (Feb. 10) at 1:05 p.m. Pacific time in a game televised live regionally by Altitude Sports and Entertainment and KSKN Channel 22 in Spokane. The Lumberjacks have lost three-straight games and are now 6-4 in the Big Sky and 15-8 overall.
All three road teams won Thursday night in the Big Sky, just a week after the Eagles dropped two home games and was the only team to lose at home in eight league games. Eastern is now tied with Northern Colorado for seventh place in the league standings, with only the top six teams in the league advancing to the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
After four ties and five lead changes in the first half, Sacramento State took advantage of EWU turnovers to go on a 15-2 run and take a 27-18 lead. Williams made a pair of baskets to cut the lead to five, but Sac State led 31-25 at halftime.
Eastern had 12 turnovers in the first half and missed its first 11 three-point attempts. The Eagles made only 39 percent of their shots, but stayed within striking distance thanks to a 19-16 rebounding advantage and holding Sac State to 45 percent shooting.
"We wanted to do two things in this game well," explained Earlywine. "One was guard dribble penetration and we did a respectable job with that in the first half. We also wanted to take care of the ball and not turn it over, and we did a pretty poor job of that in the first half. Not only did we turn it over, but we threw it to them leading directly to baskets. We've talked about it a number of times -- it's hard to defend when you throw it to the other team up top on our offensive end. They just beat you down the court and lay it in."
In the second half, Milan Stanojevic helped Eastern knot the score with back-to-back three-pointers, giving him 58 on the season to currently rank fifth in school history. It was a back-and-forth game after that as the game featured eight ties and 14 lead changes.
"We didn't change a thing," said Earlywine. "We were simply tougher with the ball and less casual with it. It's hard to simulate in practice Sacramento State's speed and quickness. Sometimes we have coach Jamie Matthews, coach Rachi Wortham and coach Grant) Leep playing defense in practice, and those guys can barely get out of bed in the morning let alone get out and pressure us. I think the speed of the game really caught us off guard in the first half."
Another second-half turnaround was that the Eagles attempted just five three-pointers in the second half, preferring instead to get the ball inside to Moore and Williams.
"Aside from our turnovers, that was what we addressed at halftime," Earlywine said. "We had taken 12 three-pointers and were 1-of-12, but we were 9-of-14 from inside the arc in the first half. We had a size advantage."
Four Hornets scored in double figures, but Earlywine said his team's defense on Sacramento State's ball-handlers was a key to the win. Eastern forced 15 Sac State turnovers to win that battle after the Hornets entered the game with the best turnover margin in the league at a plus 2.25.
"Milan has struggled a little bit recently defending the ball when guys are driving at him," Earlywine said. "But he guarded the heck out of them tonight, as did Gary Gibson and Adris DeLeon. That's what we needed in order to win this game. We hung in there long enough and kept guarding long enough to give ourselves a chance. We limited our turnovers in the second half and had some buckets in the paint."
The Lumberjacks, meanwhile, were in the Big Sky Conference lead until dropping their last three games -- 80-77 at Northern Colorado on Jan. 31, 69-67 to Idaho State on Jan. 27 and, most recently, 71-68 Thursday (Feb. 7) at home. Portland State became the sixth league team to win at least two road games as they prevailed over NAU in a battle for the Big Sky lead.
"I thought we were in the Hornet Nest tonight," said Earlywine. "We are going to play a ticked-off group of guys in Flagstaff on Sunday. We better be ready. We can't get ourselves down by 20 points on the road like we did against them at home and have a chance to win. We have to go in there and make sure that we throw the first punch. We need to get after them in the first four minutes -- I think that will be important."
Against Northern Arizona on Jan. 3, the Lumberjacks scored the first 10 points of the game and led 42-29 at halftime before holding off EWU's comeback attempt. Stanojevic had a career-high 21 points with five three-pointers, DeLeon scored 15 and Williams and Gibson each contributed 11 points. Kyle Landry paced the Lumberjacks with 22 points, seven rebounds and three steals, and Josh Wilson had 15 points and four assists.
Entering action Thursday night, Northern Arizona's 6-foot-9 Kyle Landry ranks second in the league in both scoring (17.3) and rebounding (8.6), and is third in field goal percentage (.577). Point guard Josh Wilson leads the league in assists (5.7) and is 14th in scoring (11.6). Nate Geiser leads the league in three-pointers made per game (2.5) and is 18th in scoring (10.2).
Northern Arizona leads the league in several categories, including scoring margin (+4.5), field goal percentage (.479), field goal percentage defense (.416) and rebounding margin (+5.5).
Eastern, with six players who had never played NCAA Division I basketball before -- let alone a Big Sky Conference game -- was 3-2 in the Big Sky before going on its recent four-game skid. At that time, Eastern was 8-12 overall and had won seven of its last 14 games after a 1-5 start to the season.
Before beating Sac State, Eastern's last victory was 91-85 overtime victory over Northern Colorado on Jan. 17. Besides beating UNC, Eastern's league victories were home wins versus Sacramento State (76-52 on Jan. 5) and Portland State (58-57 on Dec. 22). The Eagles versus Vikings league match-up represented the earliest BSC start in school history for EWU. Portland State was picked to finish third in both preseason polls.
Eastern is coming off a 15-14 finish to the 2006-07 season as the last three EWU seasons have yielded a collective record of 38-49. The Eagles had their string of consecutive Big Sky Conference Tournament berths snapped at nine last season as EWU finished with an 8-8 league record.