March 4, 2008
Portland, Ore. -
The league season certainly didn't end the way it started.
After battling the regular season Big Sky Conference champions toe-to-toe, Eastern Washington University couldn't get the big plays it needed in the final seconds and fell to Portland State 76-74 Tuesday (March 4) in the final men's basketball game of the season for the Eagles.
"We competed hard," said Kirk Earlywine, who ended his first season as EWU's head coach. "To be honest, I didn't know what to expect with the conclusion of our season having already being determined. But I should have known that we would come out and compete. We've been up against it all year but we haven't caved it. We didn't cave in tonight, we just laid it all on the line."
The Eagles closed the season 11-19 overall and 6-10 in the conference as Kellen Williams and Marcus Hinton -- the lone EWU seniors -- combined for 35 points. The Vikings improved to 14-2 in the league and 21-9 overall, and won their last 12 league games after a 2-2 start.
One of those early losses by PSU was a 58-57 loss in Cheney back on Dec. 22 when the league season began for both schools. Eastern won that game on a leaning eight-foot bank shot with five seconds to play by Williams.
Williams gave Eastern its last lead of the game Tuesday with another drive and eight-foot basket. But three PSU free throws in the final 24 seconds provided the final margin as Eastern missed its last two shots and gave up a key offensive rebound during that stretch. There were eight ties and eight lead changes in the game.
Williams led the Eagles with 18 points and seven rebounds as he hit a pair of milestones in the process. He moved into fifth in school history in career rebounds with 527 -- the second-most since EWU moved to NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season. He also finished his 87-game game career with 873 points, giving him a 10.0 scoring average in his career.
"I don't know how a guy can do more with what he's been given," said Earlywine of the 6-foot-4 Williams. "If how close you can come to reaching your potential is the goal of NCAA Division I basketball players, I don't know how anybody could be more successful than Kellen. He was as good a player as he could have been and got about as much out of his potential as he could have. What greater tribute can you give a guy than that. I hope we have a bunch more guys in the program during my years at Eastern that give as much as he's given and come as close to their potential as he did."
Hinton closed his career with a season-high 17-point effort. He also added six rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals. Point guard Gary Gibson added nine points and seven assists, and Brandon Moore had seven points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Freshman Trey Gross chipped in 10 points.
Eastern out-rebounded the Vikings 42-32, and the Eagles made 44 percent of their shots compared to 50 percent for the recently hot-shooting Vikings. The biggest difference in the game came at the free throw line where PSU made 17-of-31 -- including 14-of-21 in the second half -- while EWU made 8-of-13 in the game.
"Our effort level on the glass was terrific," praised Earlywine. "They were a team that just out-rebounded Montana in Missoula by 22. Our block-out on the defensive end was not where we would like it to be. We gave up one on the free throw at the end when we still had a chance. But our effort on the offensive end was outstanding."
The Vikings were coming off a weekend sweep that Earlywine called a "freight train going full speed" through the state of Montana as Portland State averaged 102 points per game in recording wins by 52 and 28 points. Portland State made 70 percent of its shots in a 96-68 win over Montana State and 63 percent in a 108-56 dismantling of Montana.
However, Eastern didn't let a nine-point deficit in the first half and an 11-point deficit in the second half turn Tuesday's game into a blowout. The Eagles fell behind 50-39 early in the second half, but battled back to knot the score at 58 on a three-pointer by Williams.
Eastern took its first lead of the half at 63-62 on a three-pointer by Gibson, then traded baskets down the stretch. Eventually, Eastern took a 74-73 advantage with 34.6 seconds to play on Williams' basket, then PSU regained the lead with a pair of free throws.
Eastern missed two contested shot attempts, then sent PSU to the line with 3.9 seconds left. After making the first free throw, the Vikings got the offensive rebound on the second to put the game away.
The Vikings will host the semifinals and championship game of the Big Sky Tournament on March 11-12 in Portland, while the Eagles will stay home for the second-straight season after a string of nine-straight appearances.
But thinking of next year is hard after the Eagles came so close this year after being picked to finish the Big Sky season eighth by the league's head coaches and ninth by the media.
"It's hard to really even think about that right now," Earlywine said of the outlook for the 2008-09 season. "I thought this first year it was important that we establish a mindset of how we would play, a level of toughness and a level of competitiveness. I think we've done that. Tonight was a good example. It would have been very, very easy for us to mail this one in against a team that was on a roll. They have been playing as well as any team in the recent history of the Big Sky. We gave ourselves a chance to win in the last minute.
Only the top six teams in the league advance to the Big Sky Conference Tournament, which begins on March 8 with quarterfinal games at campus sites (No. 4 Idaho State hosts No. 5 Montana and No. 3 Weber State hosts No. 6 Montana State). The tournament then moves to Portland for the semifinals on March 11 (No. 2 Northern Arizona and No. 1 PSU receive byes to the semifinals) and the championship game on March 12. The semifinals are televised by Altitude Sports and Entertainment and the championship game is on ESPN2.
After losing at Northern Colorado 63-53 on Feb. 23, Eastern's final chance at a tournament berth came down to needing lots of help from other Big Sky teams. But the Eagles didn't get much -- including Idaho State knocking off Sacramento State 52-51 and Montana State getting swept at home -- and EWU will have to miss the tournament for the second-straight year after making nine-straight trips from 1998-2006.
Putting Eastern in dire straits recently was the fact Eastern had lost three league games at home by margins of four, seven and two (average margin of 4.3). Getting swept at home by Montana State (64-57 on Jan. 26) and Montana (59-57 on Feb. 3) were the biggest blows.
Six of EWU's league setbacks came by four points or less. Eastern's 10 league losses were by an average of 7.8 points per game, and just 6.6 if an 80-61 loss at Montana is eliminated.
"It's disappointing, to be perfectly honest," added Earlywine, whose team was picked to finish eighth by the coaches and ninth by the media. "Home losses to Montana State and Montana are the ones we will look back on and are looking back on right now. We are kicking ourselves because they cost us a chance to get into the conference tournament. I thought that if we could get into the tournament, we've proven we can beat anybody. I know expectations were not very high for this team, but they were high within the team and by the coaches. It's disappointing to not be playing in the conference tournament."
Eastern, with six players who had never played NCAA Division I basketball before -- let alone a Big Sky Conference game -- hit its high point with a 3-3 league record in after a win over Northern Colorado on Jan. 17. 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. Since the 3-3 league start, Eastern lost four in a row against the Montana schools but closed the season by winning three of its last six.
Before Eastern's home sweep over Weber State (69-57 on Feb. 14) and Idaho State (63-53 on Feb. 16), Eastern recorded a 59-57 road win at Sacramento State on Feb. 7. Prior to that, Eastern's last win was a 91-85 overtime victory over Northern Colorado on Jan. 17. Eastern's other 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.
Last year in finishing 8-8 in the league, Eastern had its string of nine-straight berths snapped after it became the first Big Sky team since the league expanded to eight teams in the 1970-71 season to not qualify for the tourney with a .500 record or better.