Dec. 29, 2007
Senior Kellen Williams had his seventh double-double with 23 points and 10 rebounds, but Eastern Washington couldn't overcome a 32 percent shooting night and fell to the University of California Santa Barbara 58-51 on Saturday (Dec. 29) in a non-conference men's basketball game at Reese Court.
Eastern is now 6-9 after closing the calendar year with its final non-conference game of the season, followed now by 15-straight Big Sky Conference contests. The Eagles had entered the game with a three-game winning streak, which included a 58-57 victory over Portland State on Dec. 22 in EWU's Big Sky Conference opener.
"It's becoming evident that we are going to be in a bunch of grinder games that are going to end up being one or two possession games that are going to be a coin toss at the last media timeout," said Earlywine, whose team battled back to come within four with 3:35 to play. "Every mistake is magnified in those games and every bucket is bigger."
"I think our guys are getting more comfortable in those type of games," he added. "The difference between winning the conference and finishing last in the conference is how you do in those six or eight games that come down to the last possession."
Eastern will extend its homestand to six games as league play continues in January with home games against Northern Arizona (Jan. 3) and Sacramento State (Jan. 5). Both begin at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time at Reese Court.
The Gauchos are now 11-2, with their only losses to national powers North Carolina and Stanford. The Gauchos have won 14 of their last 18 games since losing 71-70 to the Eagles late last season in California. The game against UCSB, a member of the Big West Conference, was a return game from that ESPN BracketBuster match-up last Feb. 17.
Williams, last week's Big Sky Player of the Week, has now had three double-doubles in a row and fifth in his last six games. His 23 points were a season high, and just one from his career high of 24 set against Idaho a year ago.
"Kellen has been a workhorse," praised Earlywine. "I've pointed it out to him that it's going to become tougher as the season wears on. He has gone from a 14 or 15 minute role player a year ago to a guy who is the focus of the other team's scouting report. It's going to be harder and harder for him but he is more than able to step up to that challenge."
Willliams made 9-of-15 shots from the field, but the rest of EWU's team was just 10-of-44. Eastern followed a 37 percent first half by making just 8-of-29 in the second half for 28 percent. The Eagles were just 8-of-31 from the three-point line for 26 percent.
"I told our guys if I was a optimist, which I am not, I could look at it and say for the second game in a row we have shot less than 40 percent and had a chance to win," said Earlywine. "But I choose to figure out if we got good shots -- are the right guys getting the shots? I told our guys that some of them need to get in here and get extra shooting in."
The Gauchos were led by Alex Harris with 18 points as UCSB made 48 percent of its shots from the field, including 59 percent in the first half.
"He may well be a late round NBA draft pick," said Earlywine of Harris, who entered the game averaging 22.8 points per game and had 27 a year ago versus EWU. "I thought we did a good job on him on the three-point line. But he was shooting over 50 percent and we put him on the line ten times. Our goal was to guard the heck out of him but without fouling. We accomplished half of the task."
The first half featured three ties and eight lead changes. Eastern went on an 8-0 run to take a 20-15 lead with 8:15 left in the half. But the Eagles scored just eight more points in the half to fall behind 33-28 at intermission.
In the second half, EWU missed its first eight shots and fell behind 39-30. Eventually, UCSB led 45-33 as the Eagles made just one of their first 13 shots of the half with five turnovers.
But Eastern's defense kept the Eagles in the game, and a rebound basket by Williams cut the lead to 54-50 with 3:36 remaining. But in the next three minutes, Eastern was scoreless as Williams missed three free throws and EWU had two turnovers and two more missed shots.
Eastern opened its Big Sky Conference season on Dec. 22 with a 58-57 victory over Portland State. The Eagles won that game with a leaning eight-foot bank shot by Williams with five seconds to play. Eastern's defense held PSU without a field goal for the last 7:04 of the game, a stretch in which the Vikings missed their last five shots and had four turnovers.
The Gauchos were playing their final non-conference game before starting league play on Jan. 3. Until falling 105-70 on Dec. 22 to No. 1 ranked North Carolina, UCSB had won eight-straight games dating back to a 67-48 loss at Stanford on Nov. 11.
Eastern, with six players who had never played NCAA Division I basketball before -- let alone a Big Sky Conference game -- hopes to continue its recipe for recent success. Eastern has used defense and opportunistic offense to win five of its last nine after a 1-5 start.
Eastern has just two players on its roster 6-foot-7 or taller, but the Eagles have gone from allowing 82.6 points per game a year ago to a current average of just 66.5 per game. Williams, in fact, is just 6-4 but ranks third in the league in rebounding (8.9 per game) and is eighth in scoring (12.7) and 11th in field goal percentage (.514).
The Eagles and Gauchos had no common opponents, but both were 1-0 against teams from the opposing team's conference. Eastern defeated UC-Riverside 59-51 on Nov. 15 and UC Santa Barbara beat Montana State 76-61 on Nov. 24.
Last year, Williams clinched the victory over the Gauchos with two free throws with four seconds left. He finished with eight points and eight rebounds, but just 12 of EWU's 71 points in that game were scored by current Eagles.
Likewise, UCSB returned 57 of the 70 points it scored in last year's contest. Included were a trio of players who scored in double figures -- Harris with 27, Chris Devine with 15 and James Powell with 13.
The Eagles versus Vikings league match-up represented the earliest BSC start in school history for EWU. The Eagles were picked to finish last in the media poll and eighth by the league's head coaches. Portland State was picked to finish third in both preseason polls.
After playing four games -- including three on the road -- in an 11-day stretch from Nov. 29-Dec. 9, the Eagles are in the midst of a somewhat easier stretch of four games in a 16-day stretch. All four of those games are at home, starting with a 91-59 romp over Cascade on Dec. 14.
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.