Despite 13-victory disadvantage entering the game, Eagles keep up for a half with a Saint Mary's team on NCAA Tournament bubble
For a hastily-scheduled game that looked like a mis-match on paper, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team didn't go out quietly.
The Eagles led much of the first half, but Saint Mary's pulled away in the second half for an 85-65 victory in a non-conference game Friday (March 13) at McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, Calif.
"There were some encouraging things tonight," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine, whose team led 20-18 before the Gaels took a 38-31 edge at halftime. "But we needed to have a lead at halftime to try to squeeze them a little bit."
Six-foot-11 center Omar Samhan paced the Gaels with a career-high 29 points and 12 rebounds as four Saint Mary's players scored in double figures. Eastern's 6-9 center, Brandon Moore, scored 10 first-half points and finished with 15 points and five rebounds. Benny Valentine scored 11 and Andy Genao and Chris Busch each added 10 points for the Eagles.
Saint Mary's out-scored Eastern 19-3 to open the second half and put the game out of reach.
"Our conversion defense was a little bit of a problem for us," said Earlywine. "I thought giving up 38 points in the first half was still too many points for us to give up. We just don't have enough firepower to play a game in the 80's against a really good team."
Eastern finished the season 12-18, although it thought it had ended its season on Feb. 28 with a 68-62 overtime loss to Portland State. The setback eliminated the Eagles from contention for one of six berths into the Big Sky Conference Tournament, which started March 7 and ended with PSU winning the title and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight year.
Saint Mary's, meanwhile, is now 26-6 with the win and is on the bubble for a possible NCAA Tournament berth. After falling to Gonzaga 83-58 in the championship game of the West Coast Conference Tournament on Monday (March 9), the Gaels will find out their post-season fate on Sunday afternoon (March 15) when NCAA pairings are announced.
The late addition to the schedule came after SMC was looking for another game to help better prepare All-America candidate Patrick Mills, who had missed nine games prior to the WCC Tournament because of a broken hand. He finished with 19 points against the Eagles on 6-of-14 shooting from the field. He had four three-pointers and added a pair of assists and four steals.
Saint Mary's had 14 offensive rebounds, leading to 18 second-chance points and a 38-27 rebounding edge overall.
"They are a very, very good rebounding team in general," said Earlywine. "We held them to three offensive rebounds on 16 misses in the first half -- that's a terrific percentage."
The Gaels also turned 13 Eastern turnovers into 20 points.
"Having five turnovers in the first half and 13 turnovers in the game wasn't too bad," Earlywine said. "But when you turn the ball over right into their hands and they turn them into baskets, those are killers."
Eastern led much of the first half when there were four lead changes and six ties. Eastern trailed 24-33 when the Gaels went on a 6-0 run to open a seven-point advantage, then led 38-31 at halftime. It was a very evenly-played first half, with the main difference the six three-point shots Saint Mary's made compared to a pair for the Eagles.
The Eagles came out sluggish in the second half, and the Gaels took advantage to take a 47-34 lead. Moments later, a pair of three-pointers by Mills opened a 21-point lead at 57-36.
"They blocked three or four of our shots early in the second half, and for whatever reason that deflated us," explained Earlywine. "Our ball-screen defense broke down and it was a case of not being sharp enough. It wasn't necessarily a lack of effort, but if we were sharp enough those are turnovers."
Saint Mary's led by as many as 27 points and no fewer than 15 the rest of the way.
Both the Eagles and Gaels are able to utilize different NCAA schedule exceptions to enable them to add a game at this late date. Eastern had played in the NCAA limit of 29 games, but EWU's game at Hawaii in December is exempt from that restriction. Saint Mary's played three of its first 29 games in the 76 Classic in Anaheim, putting it one game short of the alternative NCAA limitation of 27 games plus one qualifying regular-season multiple team event.
Friday's game was the final appearance -- but a bonus one -- for four EWU seniors who were honored prior to the start of Eastern's final home game at Reese Court on Feb. 28 in a loss to Portland State. Guards Adris DeLeon and Milan Stanojevic played two seasons after transferring to EWU from junior colleges. The other two seniors were forwards Andy Genao and Jeff Christensen, a pair of transfers from four-year colleges who redshirted the 2007-08 season.
Mills, who scored 20 points for Australia against the United States in last summer's Olympic Games, entered Friday's game averaging 17.8 points, 3.7 assists and 2.2 steals per game for the Gaels. But he missed nine games after suffering a broken hand in the first half at Gonzaga on Jan. 29 and undergoing surgery on Feb. 4. Saint Mary's was 18-1 at the time, and he scored 18 first-half points in helping SMC to a 38-32 halftime lead over the Bulldogs. But without Mills in the lineup, the Gaels lost that game and three others to fall out of the national rankings. He was cleared to practice again on March 2.