Despite Valentine's 29 Points, Minnesota Beats Eagles 88-67

Nov. 26, 2008

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Not enough gas and too much Minnesota size did not bode well for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team Wednesday (Nov. 26) at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Minn.

Six-foot-10 Colton Iverson and 6-11 Ralph Sampson III combined for 29 points, 12 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots as Eastern ended a stretch of playing four games in eight nights with an 88-67 loss to unbeaten Minnesota of the Big Ten Conference.

Eastern’s Benny Valentine, who was this week’s Big Sky Conference Player of the Week after leading the Eagles to three-straight victories over NCAA Division I foes, had a season-high 29 points to lead the Eagles. The Golden Gophers used runs of 15-0 and 9-0 in the first half to build a 21-point lead, and although Eastern managed to cut the lead to 10 in at 65-55 with 9:31 to play, UM put the game away with a 12-0 run.

Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine was encouraged by the second-half comeback and performances by Valentine and 6-9 center Brandon Moore, but he was puzzled by the early hole the Eagles got themselves into.

"It was a little disappointing," he said. "I told our players that it’s beyond my comprehension how we could come out in the second half and have some energy and fight to us and claw ourselves back to a 10-point game. But where was it the first half? Obviously they had it in them because it showed in the second half. We didn’t in the first half and I don’t know why."

Minnesota improved to 5-0 and the loss dropped the Eagles to 3-2, but that’s still EWU’s best start since the 2002-03 season when the Eagles began the year 7-2. The Eagles will try to continue their hot start against UC Irvine on Sunday (Nov. 30) at 7:05 p.m. at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash., in a rematch of a 74-69 Eastern victory in California on Nov. 19. The Anteaters enter a game Friday (Nov. 28) at Idaho with a 0-3 record.

Moore had 13 points and nine rebounds, but he played sparingly in the first half after suffering a gash above his eye that required stitches. Mark Dunn, a 6-8 forward, chipped in eight points on 3-of-3 shooting from the field and Milan Stanojevic added seven.

"When Brandon wasn’t out there it hurt us," said Earlywine. "Mark Dunn is playing well for us, but he isn’t near the scoring threat that Brandon is. Having them both out on the floor at the same time is a good combination for us, but it isn’t as good when Mark is out there on his own."

"We haven’t spent a lot of time with our offense when Brandon is double-teamed in the post like he was tonight," he added. "He did a good job of not turning the ball over out of that and we got some open shots and good looks. That was encouraging tonight."

Valentine, a 5-foot-7 point guard who redshirted last year after transferring from Texas Tech, made 9-of-21 shots from the field, including 5-of-8 three-point attempts. He also made all six of his free throws and had a pair of steals.

"He did a good job," praised Earlywine. "Our bigs set some nice screens for him and Benny came off them well. Tonight he took 21 shots and we needed him to. I think he’s starting to understand at what point in the game we need him to force the action a little bit and try to make a play, and when we just need him to manage our team. He has to switch back and forth, and that’s a hard thing to do, but he’s getting better at it. Given how much of a struggle it was for other guys to score, somebody has to shoot it."

The Eagles were above the 50 percent shooting mark for most of the game, but cooled off late and finished at 43 percent (22-of-51) from the field and 80 percent from the line (16-of-20). The Golden Gophers made 58 percent of their field goals (34-of-58) and 87.5 percent of their free throws (14-of-16)., and had a XX-XX advantage in points in the paint.

Eastern was also out-rebounded 31-26 and had 14 turnovers compared to just nine for Minnesota. Iverson made 10-of-13 shots from the field and finished with 20 points and five boards.

"I thought if we could get it to single digits we could maybe squeeze them a little bit and they would tighten up," added Earlywine of EWU out-scoring Minnesota 26-18 to open the second half. "But we weren’t able to. It wasn’t one particular thing over and over again (that broke down during UM’s 12-0 run), but it was something different each trip down the floor. That was disappointing."

Eastern had not started 3-1 since the 2002-03 season when the Eagles finished 18-13 and advanced to the NIT Tournament. That year the Eagles lost to Weber State 60-57 in the Big Sky Tournament championship game with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line. Earlywine was an assistant coach that season for the Wildcats, who were 14-0 in the league and 26-6 overall.

The last time Eastern was 4-1 to start a season came in 1997-98 when the Eagles finished the year 16-11. On Sunday, Eastern will be gunning for its best five-game start since the 2002-03 squad began the year 3-2 and stretched it to 7-2 with a four-game winning streak.

In the first three games of its four-game grind, Eastern defeated UC Irvine (74-69), Texas Arlington (73-70) and Idaho (69-59). The win over Texas Arlington was particularly impressive because the Mavericks were a NCAA Tournament participant last year and are the defending Southland Conference champions.

Eastern opened its season with a 66-50 loss on Nov. 14 at Illinois of the Big Ten Conference in a game that was tied at 35 at halftime. However, Eastern went 8:05 without a field goal during a 15-1 Illinois run in the second half to spoil a combined 27-point outing for Valentine and Moore.

Earlywine is in his second season at the helm after leading the Eagles to an 11-19 record overall and 6-10 Big Sky Conference mark last season. Season tickets, including several packages with selected games, are now on sale. Information is available at http://WWW.GOEAGS.COM.

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