Top Six Finish in Big Sky in Sight For Eagles
Feb. 9, 2009
If last week’s home sweep was important, this week’s road double-header may be just as critical for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team.
The Eagles ended a six-game losing skid by defeating Sacramento State 67-46 and Northern Arizona 54-50 last week at home at Reese Court, but they still have some work to do in their last four Big Sky Conference games of the year if EWU hopes to make the post-season for the first time in three seasons.
That final push starts this Thursday (Feb. 12) when Eastern plays at league-leading Weber State at 6:05 p.m. Pacific time in Ogden, Utah. On Saturday (Feb. 14), in a game televised live regionally on Altitude Sports and Entertainment at 3:07 p.m. Pacific time, Eastern plays an even more important game at the team it’s currently battling for sixth place, Idaho State.
"I could probably point at any one of our four remaining games and say ‘that’s the most important one,’" said Eagle head coach Kirk Earlywine. "But I’m a big believer in taking the approach that the next one is most important. Weber State is in first place, and a win over them would give us a leg up in a lot of tiebreaker scenarios. Aside from the obvious in that it’s the next game and they are in first place, we just need to win games."
Heading into action this week, Eastern is percentage points ahead of the Bengals for sixth place in the league standings. The Eagles are now 5-7 in the league (.417 percentage), compared to the Bengals at 4-6 (.400). Coupled with a 71-65 home win over ISU earlier this season, a win Saturday in Pocatello, Idaho, would give Eastern a significant tiebreaker advantage over ISU by sweeping the season series. The Bengals (7-17 overall) host Portland State prior to taking on the Eagles (11-13 overall).
"We are all kind of fighting it out to get into the conference tournament," said Earlywine of EWU, ISU, Northern Colorado, Montana State and Northern Arizona. "Obviously, a head-to-head matchup with any of those teams is huge."
Thursday’s game at Weber State also provides an opportunity for EWU to garner what could be a tiebreaker advantage in case a potential tie can’t be broken via head-to-head meetings. The Wildcats, 9-1 in the league and 15-8 overall with a six-game winning streak, have already swept ISU and Northern Colorado (6-6 in the BSC), and won its first game of the year versus Northern Arizona (3-8).
But the Eagles suffered a frustrating 77-69 home defeat against Weber State on Jan. 11. The Eagles went 4:54 without scoring as Weber State went on a 17-2 run to turn a 23-18 deficit into a 32-25 advantage in the 77-69 Wildcat win. In addition, EWU 24-game starter Brandon Moore had just four points on 4-of-4 free throw shooting, no field goal attempts and five rebounds before fouling out after playing just 10 minutes.
"We gave up 77 points at home the first time we played them, and if we give up that many at their place it will be hard to win," stated Earlywine.
The top six teams in the regular season standings advance to the six-team Big Sky Conference Tournament which starts on March 7. Besides this week’s games, Eastern hosts its final two games at home versus Northern Colorado on Feb. 21 and defending regular season and tournament champion Portland State on Feb. 28.
After using early leads of 17-0 and 41-9 to dispatch Sacramento State last week, Eastern had a nail-biter against Northern Arizona. There were 11 ties and 10 lead changes, and the largest lead for either team was four points as EWU narrowly completed its first weekend conference sweep of the season. It also avenged EWU’s second-worst loss of the season on Jan. 2 in Flagstaff, Ariz., in a 72-49 Lumberjack win.
"I was pleased with how we functioned as a group," said Earlywine of his team’s chemistry in the home sweep. "Our players were all on the same page and were very, very ready to help each other. We went through a stretch this year where some of our players were kind of self-absorbed and I felt the welfare and well-being of the team was not the No. 1 priority for every player. The improvements we’ve made are subtle things -- how they interact with each other, their body language, their facial expressions, how they communicate with each other and how the bench reacts to plays during the game. It’s a lot of little things that add up to being the difference in close games. We’re nearly back to where we were early in the year when we were winning those close games."
Eastern had a stingy defense last week that was reminiscent of earlier this season when EWU jumped out to a 6-2 record and was an early leader in the Big Sky Conference in scoring defense.
The 50 points EWU allowed against NAU were the second-fewest the Eagles have given up this season. The Eagles allowed a season-low 46 points against Sacramento State on Feb. 5, eclipsing the 55 EWU allowed versus Montana State on Dec. 6. The 21 rebounds and 16 total field goals Sac State had were also season lows for an EWU opponent.
Eastern equaled a season-high with 19 turnovers forced against Sacramento State on Feb. 5. The result was 29 points off turnovers, second only to the 30 Eastern scored off turnovers against the Hornets on Jan. 4 when EWU forced 18 miscues.
"We are getting back to where we were the first four weeks of the season," Earlywine said of his team’s defensive toughness. "You have to be able to grind possessions in conference games. With the increased familiarity teams have with each other, games tend to slow down at this time of year. I was happy with our team’s resolve and toughness, and we’ll need it again."
After closing the month of January with a 2-7 record, the Eagles are now 2-0 in February. Before the win over Sac State -- EWU’s seventh-straight in the series against the Hornets and the 13th-straight win over Sac State in Cheney -- the Eagles hadn’t won since beating Idaho State 71-68 on Jan. 8. The victory over Northern Arizona snapped a five-game losing streak in the series.
Eastern is just 3-23 all-time in Ogden, with Eastern’s lone victories there coming in 2006 (76-73), 2001 (81-70) and 2000 (90-78) when Eastern snapped the Wildcats' 30-game home winning streak, which at the time was the fourth longest in NCAA Division I. Eastern has won 18 of the past 25 meetings against the Bengals, but is just 9-18 all-time in Pocatello.
Big Sky Conference Basketball -- http://www.bigskyconf.com/sport.asp?path=mbball&tab=mens
NCAA Basketball -- http://www.ncaa.com/sports/m-baskbl/ncaa-m-baskbl-body.html
ESPN College Scoreboard -- http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/scoreboard
Rodney Stuckey NBA Page -- http://www.nba.com/playerfile/rodney_stuckey/index.html
More Information and Links are Available at: HTTP://WWW.GOEAGS.COM
Links:Eastern Basketball -- http://goeags.cstv.com/sports/m-baskbl/ewas-m-baskbl-body.html
-- Upcoming Ticket Offers -- For its final two Big Sky Conference home games of the year, Eastern is offering some ticket bargains for fans.
On Feb. 21 against Northern Colorado, Eastern is having a prostate cancer awareness night. Fans who wear blue will be admitted free for general admission seating, and a 2-for-1 coupon will also be available for those who don’t wear blue.
A "Slam Dunk Deal" is also being offered through EWU and Ticketswest for the Feb. 28 game against Portland State. The "Slam Dunk Deal" for two persons is $30 (two $15 seats, voucher for two hotdogs and sodas at the game -- a savings of $12). For four persons, the cost is $50 (four $15 seats, voucher for four hotdogs and sodas at the game -- a savings of $34).
Tickets may be purchased on ticketswest.com or at 1-800-325-SEAT. They cannot be purchased at the game.
The link directly to the ticket offer is: http://ev8.evenue.net/cgi-bin/ncommerce3/SEGetPackageInfo?packageCode=GS%3ATWC%3A%3AEREE0228%3A&linkID=twcorp&shopperContext=&caller=&appCodde=
-- Earlywine Makes Return to Ogden -- Second-year Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine will be coaching in his 19th Eastern-Weber State game, including his ninth meeting in Ogden, Utah. A Weber State assistant coach for seven seasons from 1999-2006, he was on the losing end of all three of Eastern’s victories in Ogden. Eastern is just 3-23 all-time in Ogden, with Eastern’s lone victories there coming in 2006 (76-73), 2001 (81-70) and 2000 (90-78) when Eastern snapped the Wildcats' 30-game home winning streak, which at the time was the fourth longest in NCAA Division I.
In 17 games as an assistant coach, Weber State was 9-8 against EWU. He is 1-2 versus WSU as Eastern’s head coach, including a 69-57 home victory on Feb. 14, 2008. He knows his Eagles have a tough task ahead of them this week in Ogden, particularly in light of the fact Weber State knocked off his team 77-69 on Jan. 11 at home.
"It’s always even harder (to win in Ogden) when Weber State has really good teams, which they do," he said. "Ever since (a 71-65 loss at Arizona) they have played very, very good basketball. As a team, they function very, very well, and that has enabled them to pull-out a lot of close games."
-- Eagles Match 2007-08 Win Total -- Thanks to a home sweep on Feb. 5 (Sacramento State) and Feb. 7 (Northern Arizona), the Eagles have matched last year’s win total of 11.
The Eagles are now 3-10 on the road this season and 8-3 at home, with their last victory before Feb. 5 coming on Jan. 8 when the Eagles used a late surge to knock-off Idaho State 71-65. Prior to that, EWU concluded a three-game, seven-day road trip with an 87-74 victory on Jan. 4 at last-place Sacramento State. Eastern opened the league season with a 61-55 victory over Montana State on Dec. 6, which represented EWU’s last win over a NCAA Division I opponent until the victory over the Hornets.
Eastern’s 6-2 record after the first eight games was its best start since the 2002-03 season when EWU used a four-game winning streak to improve to 7-2. Eastern was unable to duplicate that 7-2 start by losing at Hawaii on Dec. 13, but Eastern won its Big Sky opener against Montana State in the earliest Big Sky start in EWU history.
-- Genao and Moore Impressive in Last Five Games -- Forward Andy Genao and center Brandon Moore have been impressive in EWU’s last five games, and have led EWU in scoring and rebounding during that stretch.
Genao has had a pair of double-doubles and has averaged 12.4 points and 8.6 rebounds to lead EWU in both categories during that five-game stretch. Moore has scored in double figures in his four of those five games, averaging 11.4 points and 7.0 rebounds. Benny Valentine, EWU’s leading scorer on the season (16.0) and in Big Sky games only (16.3), is averaging 11.0 points in the last five games.
Genao and Moore combined for 27 points and 14 rebounds in a 67-46 win over Sacramento State on Feb. 5, then combined for seven points and 14 rebounds in a defensive battle in a 54-50 victory against Northern Arizona on Feb. 7.
Genao had a 14-point, 12-rebound performance at Montana on Jan. 31, and had eight points and seven boards one game earlier versus Montana State. He had a season-high 20 points with 10 rebounds and four assists on Jan. 24 at Portland State. He has had four double-doubles in 24 games this season, and for the year is averaging 7.0 points and 5.9 rebounds while making 47 percent of his shots from the field.
-- Valentine a Leader Against NAU -- Eastern’s Benny Valentine is no longer the Big Sky Conference scoring leader, but he certainly was the kind of leader head coach Kirk Earlywine was looking for on Feb. 7 against Northern Arizona.
In a game in which the largest lead for either team was four points, Valentine scored 13 points and had seven assists as the Eagles survived for a 54-50 victory over Northern Arizona. He made 6-of-10 shots from the floor, including the only three-point shot he tried. His seven assists were a season-high by two. He also had three rebounds and a pair of steals, including one theft in crunch time that helped give EWU the lead for good. Tied at 50 with 2:09 left, Valentine had a steal and assist on a fast-break basket by Gary Gibson that gave EWU the lead for good and a two-point advantage with 1:21 to play.
"I thought Benny Valentine played his best game of the year by far, by a wide margin," said Earlywine of Valentine’s performance against NAU. "He ran the team. He got shots for his teammates. He had seven assists, a season high. He wasn’t out there chucking shots. I thought that he was the key to the win and he didn’t have to score 25 or 30 points to help us."
He now ranks second in the league with a 16.0 scoring average, ranking just behind Anthony Johnson from Montana (16.6 average) and just ahead of Loren Leath from Sacramento State (15.9). Valentine, a candidate for Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year accolades, was selected as the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week after leading the Eagles to three-straight NCAA Division I victories in a six-day stretch in November.
-- Benny Valentine Earns Academic All-District Honors -- Eastern Washington University junior Benny Valentine was selected to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District VIII men’s basketball team released Feb. 5. The squad is selected by members of the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA).
Valentine has a 3.40 grade point average as a business administration major after transferring from Texas Tech University. The qualifying standards include a minimum 3.3 grade point average at Eastern and be a significant contributor to the team.
"We’re proud of Benny and his efforts and success in the classroom," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. "To be honest, I expected no less from him when he came to Eastern. He was a good student in high school, junior college and at Texas Tech, so I had every reason to believe he would be an excellent student here as well."
Eastern’s December Scholar-Athlete of the Month, Valentine is a 2005 graduate of Omaha Central High School in Nebraska. He and the four other members of the squad now advance to the national ballot, with the Academic All-America teams announced on Feb. 25.
Current Detroit Piston Rodney Stuckey won the same honor in both 2006 and 2007, and went on to earn third team Academic All-America honors in 2007. EWU’s other All-District VIII selections were Jason Humbert (2002) and Aaron Olson (2001).
The other four players selected included fellow Big Sky Conference player Matt Stucki from Idaho State. Also selected were Washington State’s Taylor Rochestie and Daven Harmeling, as well as Fresno State’s Nedeljko Golubovic.
The District VIII university division includes all NCAA Division I teams from nine western states, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
-- More on Benny Valentine -- For the season, Benny Valentine has made 40 percent of his shots from the field, 35 percent of his three-pointers (48-of-139) and 73 percent of his free throws to go along with averages of 3.1 assists (fourth in the league), 1.3 steals (fifth) and 2.9 rebounds per game. He has led Eastern in scoring in 14 games thus far, with a pair of 30-point performances, six outings with at least 20 and 21 of 24 games in double figures.
In EWU’s 11 victories this season, he has averaged 17.8 points on 44.7 percent shooting from the field. In Eastern’s losses, those figures fall to 14.5 points and 36 percent shooting.
In a four-game stretch from Jan. 4 to Jan. 15, Valentine averaged 24.5 points on 35-of-63 shooting from the field (54.0 percent), 12-of-24 from the three-point stripe (50.0) and 18-of-24 from the line (75.0). In one of those games, he made 11-of-16 shots to finish with 31 points in a 75-68 loss at Northern Colorado on Jan. 15. He scored 33 points three games earlier against Sacramento State on Jan. 4 when he finished with his best scoring game of the season. It was his first of more than 16 in nine games since getting 29 and 21 in back-to-back games in late November against Minnesota and UC Irvine, respectively.
"He was very selective in the first half -- he took nine shots but I thought all nine of them were really good, open shots," said Earlywine after the Sac State game. "There will be some games where we need him to shoot more, but there are more games where we need him to run our team and get more shots for the other players who are shooting a high percentage. He needs to pick his spots, and tonight he did that."
Valentine saw his average drop from a high of 20.3 after the UC Irvine game on Nov. 30 to 15.5 heading into EWU’s meeting with Sac State. In those previous eight games, the Texas Tech transfer had averaged 11.9 points while making just 36-of-113 shots for 32 percent and 14-of-46 three-pointers for 30 percent. He also had more turnovers (31) than assists (26) in those eight games.
In a 75-55 loss at Hawaii, he had his first double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds to go along with a team-high five assists. Valentine then scored 29 points against Minnesota on Nov. 26, and followed that with 21 in EWU’s 78-64 victory over UC Irvine on Nov. 30. He followed that by scoring 15 at Portland in a 63-58 Eastern victory, including 12 in the second half and 10 of Eastern’s last 11 points in the final 3:13. He made three of four shots from the floor and all four of his free throws in that stretch.
And in a 61-55 win over Montana State, Valentine scored 10 points in the first half and finished with 15 for the game to go along with four assists and three steals. He assisted on three-straight baskets in the second half to give EWU a four-point lead en route to a 33-22 scoring advantage in the second half.
"Benny trusted his teammates," said head coach Kirk Earlywine after the MSU win. "Sometimes when things aren’t going as well as we would like it is easy for him to go off on his own, get shots for himself and try to score. He kept throwing the ball to the right spot. It’s good for him to trust his teammates like that."
En route to winning Big Sky Player of the Week honors on Nov. 25, Valentine averaged 19.3 points, 3.3 assists and 1.0 steals in EWU’s previous three games -- all victories over NCAA Division I opponents. He made 46.2 percent of his field goal attempts (18-of-39) and 68 percent of his free throws (19-of-28) as Eastern defeated UC Irvine (74-69), Texas Arlington (73-70) and Idaho (69-59).
He had 28 points and four assists versus UTA, a NCAA Tournament participant last year and the defending Southland Conference champion. Valentine is originally from Omaha, Neb., and is a 2005 graduate of Omaha Central High School.
"Against Texas Arlington and Minnesota we needed him to score for us," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. "In other games, we’ve just needed him to run our team. But against UC Irvine (on Nov. 30) we needed him to do both within the same game. In the first half when we were struggling, we needed him to score and he did. In the second half, we needed him to run our team, get the ball inside and do the things that got us the 18-point lead, and he did that as well. It’s very encouraging that he is gaining a feel and understanding for what our team needs at particular moments and be willing to do that."
The Eagles found out against Idaho how important it was to have Valentine on the floor. He scored 13 points and had four assists in 29 minutes versus the Vandals, nailing all four of his free throws in the last two minutes while playing with four fouls. Eastern led by as many as 21 in the second half versus the Vandals, who were able to rally without Valentine in the game and pulled to within six with 2:19 left. He took just one shot in the first half, but EWU led 41-23.
"Idaho is quick and athletic all over the floor," Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine said. "So whenever we took Benny out of the game, it certainly made things more difficult for us in terms of getting a good shot."
-- Moore Having Season of Highs and Lows -- Eastern 6-foot-9 junior center Brandon Moore is having a season of highs and lows, and his shooting percentages and fouls are a great indicator of his recent trials and tribulations. Moore is from Graham, Wash., and is a 2005 graduate of Bethel High School.
Moore is the only Eagle to have started all 24 games this season and is averaging 10.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game to rank 19th and second, respectively, in the Big Sky Conference. In his 81-game career (41 as a starter), Moore has averaged 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds while making just under 50 percent of his shots from the field. His 54 blocked shots rank fourth in school history, and he needs five more to move into third.
Moore had three double-doubles in Eastern’s first 12 games of the season, but hasn’t had any in the 12 games since. A career 60.8 percent free throw shooter entering the season, he has made 62.6 percent this year to increase his career mark to 61.5 percent. He had made 17 of his last 19 attempts heading into EWU’s Jan. 24 game at Portland State.
However, his field goal percentage has gone the opposite direction. Entering the year he had made 52.2 percent in his career, but this year it has dropped to 45.5 to give him a career mark of 49.3 percent.
In his most recent outings, he had 14 points and eight rebounds against Sacramento State on Feb. 5, then had four points and nine boards two days later against Northern Arizona. Moore had 10 points and seven rebounds against Montana on Jan. 31, and had a 17-point performance one game earlier at Montana State. But 13 of his points against the Bobcats came in the first half and he finished the game with just three rebounds.
On Jan. 11 in a 77-69 loss against Weber State, foul trouble limited Moore to 10 total minutes. He was 4-of-4 from the free throw line and 0-of-0 from the field after getting fouled on the only field goals he attempted. He had four points and five rebounds before fouling out. One game earlier he had no fouls in a 17-point, seven-rebound effort against Idaho State. Against Northern Colorado on Jan. 15, he was 8-of-10 from the line but just 1-of-8 from the field.
Moore had his third double-double of the year with 22 points, 13 rebounds and a career-high three assists in EWU’s 90-87 win over Evergreen State on Dec. 22. Moore made 6-of-12 shots from the field and 10-of-13 free throws against the Geoducks, and seven of his rebounds came on the offensive end. The 6-foot-9 Moore came just one point from his career high of 23 points set as a freshman against Evergreen State. His assists tied his career high from that game.
Moore’s other double-doubles this season came against Idaho (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Texas Arlington (16 points, 11 rebounds), giving him five in his career. He had a near-miss at Boise State on Dec. 29 when he finished with 12 points and nine boards. He also has seven double figure rebounding performances as an Eagle.
-- EWU in Big Sky-Only Statistics -- In league games only, Eastern is second in the Big Sky in offensive rebounds (10.9 per game), turnover margin (+1.9 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.07). Thanks to allowing a total of 96 points in back-to-back home games against Sacramento State and Northern Arizona, the Eagles have moved from eighth to third in scoring defense (65.8). Eastern is last in three-point field goal offense (.307), eighth in scoring offense (62.8) and seventh in field goal percentage defense (.464) and offense (.412).
Individually, Benny Valentine ranks fifth in scoring (16.3), seventh in three-pointers made (2.0 per game), 10th in steals (1.5) and sixth in assists (3.3). Brandon Moore is fifth in rebounding (6.6) and third in offensive rebounds (2.8). Also, Andy Genao is eighth in rebounding (5.5) and Milan Stanojevic is third in free throw percentage (.889) and ninth in three-pointers made per game (1.8).
-- Eagles Were an Early Leader in the Big Sky in Scoring Defense -- Including all games, the Eagles currently rank fifth in the Big Sky Conference in scoring defense, allowing 68.0 per game (Montana leads at 65.7 per game). Through eight games -- and a 6-2 record -- the Eagles were allowing just 66.1 to lead the league. Before holding Boise State to 57 points on Dec. 29, the Eagles had allowed an average of 78.3 in their previous four games to fall out of the lead.
In their 13 losses this season, Eastern has allowed 72.0 points and 48.3 percent shooting. In EWU’s 11 victories, those figures drop to 63.4 and 43.9. Eastern is 7-3 when it holds opponents to 65 points or fewer and 7-3 when it holds opponents to 43 percent shooting or less. The Eagles are 1-6 when allowing at least 75 points.
In its first six victories of the season, Eastern had allowed only 62.5 per game while holding opponents to 39.9 percent shooting from the field and 29.0 percent from the three-point stripe. But in their seventh win, a 90-87 triumph over Evergreen State, the Geoducks made 66 percent from both the field overall (35-of-53) and the three-point stripe (10-of-15). Eastern followed that by holding Boise State to 42 percent shooting overall (20-of-48) and 18 percent from the arc (2-of-11) in a 57-48 loss.
Ideally, Eastern would like to win with defense like it did in its league opener on Dec. 6. Eastern held Montana State to just 22 second-half points as the Bobcats made only 29 percent from the field after intermission. The result was Eastern’s best defensive performance of the season at that point by allowing MSU just 55 total points, eclipsing the 58 Eastern allowed one game earlier against Portland in a 63-58 win. The Pilots scored only nine points in the final 8:21, including a fairly meaningless basket with 16 seconds to play. But in the eight minutes prior to that, the Pilots were just 1-of-7 from the field with four turnovers.
"I know we’re not going to shut anybody out -- I tell our players that all the time," said Earlywine. "But we need to make teams earn their points. For the most part against Portland, we did not give them points -- they had to earn them."
-- Eagles Unbeaten When They Score 70 or More -- Eastern has won all six games this season when the Eagles score at least 70 points. When they make at least 45 percent of their shots they are 10-2, with the lone losses coming in back-to-back games at Portland State on Jan. 24 and at MSU on Jan. 29.
Eastern is 7-3 when holding opponents to 64 or fewer points and 7-3 when holding them to 43 percent shooting or less. The Eagles are 7-2 when EWU has a better field goal percentage than its opponent. In addition, the Eagles are 8-4 when they out-rebound opponents and 8-4 when they hold opponents to 31 rebounds or less. Eastern is also 8-5 when forcing more or equal turnovers and 5-0 when the Eagles force at least 15 turnovers.
-- DeLeon and Busch Finally Cleared to Play -- The 75-55 Hawaii loss on Dec. 13 marked the season debuts for returning 12-game starter Adris DeLeon and junior college transfer Chris Busch. Both missed the first eight games of the season before being officially cleared to play on Dec. 12 after final exams from fall quarter were completed and grades submitted.
DeLeon has averaged 5.1 points in an average of 15.4 minutes per game. He made his first start of the season against Sacramento State on Jan. 4 and responded with 17 points and three assists. Busch, who scored a team-high 13 at Washington on Dec. 20, is averaging 4.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game. Busch is a transfer from Merritt Junior College in California while DeLeon averaged 12.5 points and 3.1 assists in 27 games last year for EWU.
-- Eagles Win Three on Road, Eight at Home -- The schedule, with just one occurrence of back-to-back road games until the start of league play, started well for the Eagles. Eastern picked up road wins at UC Irvine, Portland and Sacramento State, and won six of its first seven games at Reese Court.
But losing a pair of league home games -- 77-69 to Weber State on Jan. 11 and 63-50 to Montana on Jan. 21 -- were blows head coach Kirk Earlywine was hoping to avoid. Of the first 18 league games played, Weber’s victory was just the fifth road breakthrough. Two of the home losses at the time were owned by 0-4 Sac State.
"It’s becomes even more difficult when you give away a home game," said Earlywine, whose team is trying to return to the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the first time since EWU had a nine-season streak of berths (1998-2006).
Last year, Eastern had only two home games in its first 11 outings of the season. As a result, Eastern was just 3-8 to start the season before going 8-9 in their next 17 games. The Eagles ended the season with a pair of road losses and finished the season 8-5 at Reese Court and 3-14 away from home.
-- Eagles Picked to Finish as High as Seventh -- The Eastern Washington University men’s basketball program has been picked to finish as high as seventh in the Big Sky Conference in preseason polls released Oct. 22 by the Big Sky Conference.
The league’s head coaches selected EWU seventh, while the media picked EWU to finish eighth in the nine-team league. Last year, the Eagles finished 11-19 overall and seventh in the league with a 6-10 mark under first-year head coach Kirk Earlywine.
The Eagles had only three players with NCAA Division I experience on their roster last year and a total of just eight players who participated in at least 15 games. Entering the 2008-09 season, Eastern had a full roster of 14 players that included six returning letter winners. Returning starters were center Brandon Moore and guards Trey Gross and Gary Gibson, but Gross left the team in December.
-- Pre-Season Losses Lead to Big Sky Conference Wins -- In the last nine seasons (including the 2007-08 season), Eastern has entered Big Sky Conference play with a collective 45-67 (.401) record. Those difficult schedules have yielded an 81-53 (.604) Big Sky Conference record in that span. Eastern has finished third or better in the Big Sky regular season standings in six of the last nine years en route to a pair of regular season Big Sky titles, one Big Sky Tournament title and three-runner-up tourney finishes.
In 2007-08, Eastern entered conference play 5-8, which compares favorably to the previous eight seasons (most recent are listed first) -- 6-6, 5-8, 3-10, 4-9, 8-6, 6-8, 5-5, 3-7. One of Eastern’s worst pre-conference records was in 2003-04 (4-9), yet resulted in an 11-3 league mark, Big Sky regular season and tourney titles and the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. In the 1999-2000 season -- EWU’s final season under former head coach Steve Aggers -- the Eagles were just 3-7 before sharing the Big Sky Conference regular season title with Montana as they both finished 12-4 in conference play.
-- EWU-Weber State Series History (Since 1983-84) -- Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are 19-33 against Weber State (19-34 all-time). The Eagles are 14-11 in Cheney, 3-22 in Ogden and 2-0 on neutral courts versus the Wildcats since 1983-84 (3-23 in Ogden all-time). Eastern’s lone victories in Ogden came in 2006 (76-73), 2001 (81-70) and 2000 (90-78) when Eastern snapped the Wildcats' 30-game home winning streak, which at the time was the fourth longest in NCAA Division I.
The Eagles have won 13 of the last 27 meetings after losing nine-straight from 1992-1996. Eastern has defeated the Wildcats three times in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament (72-53 in 2004, 62-57 in 2002 and 83-67 in 1990). Last year, Eastern lost in Ogden 74-64 before winning in Cheney 69-57.
-- Earlier This Season . . . Weber State 77, Eastern Washington 69 -- As much as it tried, the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team couldn’t climb out of the hole it dug for itself.
Weber State built a 17-point second-half lead and held off a late rally by the Eagles for a 77-69 victory Jan. 11 in an early-season Big Sky Conference men’s basketball showdown at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern used runs of 8-0 and 7-0 in the final nine minutes to make the game close, but the Eagles fell to 3-2 in the conference and 9-8 overall. Benny Valentine led the Eagles with 20 points in a losing effort as Weber State improved to 3-0 in the league and 9-7 overall.
In the end, the Eagles couldn’t overcome a nearly five minute stretch in the first half when they went scoreless after a promising start. Eastern made just two of its last 14 shots in the first half after making nine of its first 15.
"I can go on down the list of the good shots we had that we didn't make," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine, whose team finished the game making 38 percent of its shots from the field (23-of-60). "We dropped our heads and didn't guard. That’s when you've got to be tougher. You've got to be more resolute and not allow the other team to score when things aren't going well on offense, and we didn't do that."
The loss spoiled the homecoming for former Eagle and current Detroit Piston Rodney Stuckey, who was on hand to have his jersey retired at halftime. A crowd of 2,451 attended the game, and Stuckey remained on the floor for more than an hour after the game to sign autographs. At the time, Stuckey was averaging 13.5 points and 5.0 assists per game as the starting point guard for the Pistons.
Guard Adris DeLeon and Mark Dunn each had 14 points for the Eagles, with Dunn adding a season-high nine rebounds. Dunn’s scoring output was also his season high, but he made only 5-of-13 shots. DeLeon made 6-of-13 and Valentine made 7-of-16, but Milan Stanojevic was just 2-of-8 for five points after scoring 20 in his last outing.
Eastern’s 6-foot-9 starting center, Brandon Moore, played just 10 minutes before fouling out. He did not attempt a shot but made all four of his free throws to go along with five rebounds. He entered the game with averages of 11.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game to rank 13th and third, respectively, in the Big Sky.
"It was huge," said Earlywine of Moore’s foul trouble. "He played 34 minutes on Thursday night against Idaho State without a foul and today he plays 10 minutes and fouls out. It jeopardizes our ability to play in the post, so then we take a lot more three-pointers."
Both the Eagles and Wildcats had entered the game coming off impressive wins and riding two-game winning streaks The Eagles used a late surge to hold-off Idaho State 71-65 on Jan. 8 while the Wildcats recorded an 80-66 victory over league favorite Portland State.
Earlywine was convinced that the Wildcats are a legitimate contender to unseat Portland State for the league title. The Vikings are the defending regular season and tournament champion, and was picked to repeat by the league’s head coaches and media.
"(Weber State) got beat by six at Arizona with Arizona coming off big wins," he said. "And they beat Portland State by double digits. They are very good -- they have a lot of good pieces to the puzzle."
Although the Eagles finished with a 32-24 advantage in points in the paint, Eastern made only 5-of-23 three pointers for 22 percent.
"We shouldn't be taking 40-45 percent of our shots from the arc," said Earlywine. "Mark (Dunn) struggled a little bit to score at the post. Brandon (Moore) is our primary low-post scoring option. When he sits on the bench for 30 of the 40 minutes, it makes it pretty difficult for us."
Eastern fell behind early 11-6, but needed less than five minutes to turn that into an eight-point advantage with a 14-4 run. DeLeon scored nine of his points during that stretch as Eastern took a 23-15 lead.
Later, while leading 25-22, the Eagles went 4:54 without scoring as Weber State took the lead for good at 32-25.
Weber State used runs of 7-0 and 10-2 to build its 17-point lead in the second half, taking a 63-46 advantage with 8:50 left. Despite EWU’s 8-0 run, the Wildcats still led 68-58 with four minutes to play when Eastern made its final move.
Valentine scored five-straight EWU points, then Dunn made a rebound basket to cut the lead to 68-65 with 2:32 to play. But Weber State’s Daviin Davis had a blocked shot and a dunk in a 30-second span that helped WSU regain a six-point advantage. Weber State made its last six free throws to seal the win.
Three Wildcats scored in double figures, led by Kellen McCoy’s 21 and Nick Hansen’s 19. Steve Panos made 9-of-10 free throws to finish with 17 points as Weber State finished the game 29-of-37 at the line for 78 percent to go along with a 45-percent shooting performance.
-- EWU-Idaho State Series History (Since 1983-84) -- Eastern has won 18 of the past 25 meetings against the Bengals, including sweeps in the 2001-02, 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. Idaho State swept the Eagles in the regular season in 2002-03, but Eastern won the third meeting by a 76-67 score in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Last year, Eastern lost 58-56 in Pocatello before rebounding for a 63-53 home win.
Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are 29-24 against the Bengals, including a 20-7 record in Cheney and 8-16 mark in Pocatello (1-1 on neutral courts). Eastern lost eight-straight games to ISU from 1993 to 1997, and leads in the all-time series 32-25 (22-6 in Cheney, 9-18 in Pocatello, 1-1 neutral).
-- Earlier This Season . . . Eastern Washington 71, Idaho State 65 -- A late 7-1 run and a season-high 20 points from senior Milan Stanojevic helped Eastern Washington University hold off Idaho State for a 71-65 Big Sky Conference men’s basketball victory Jan. 8 at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Stanojevic made all 10 of his free throws as the Eagles made 20-of-21 as a team for 95 percent. The free throw performance tied a school record originally set on Dec. 10, 1994, when the Eagles sank 20-of-21 versus Portland. The individual record is 16-of-16 set by Jason Lewis against Weber State on Jan. 27, 2001.
Senior Brandon Moore added 17 points and seven rebounds on 5-of-5 free throw shooting, and Benny Valentine added 14 points. Valentine, the Big Sky’s leading scorer with a 16.7 scoring average, also had four steals and a pair of rebounds.
"When you step up there and go 20-of-21, that certainly helps," said Earlywine, whose team entered the game eighth in the league in free throw percentage at 66.3 percent. "We needed all of them. Milan is older and Brandon stepped up and made his, and he is older. That's what old and experienced players are supposed to do."
Stanojevic also made 4-of-6 shots from the field, including 2-of-4 three-pointers. He came one point from his career high of 21 points set Jan. 3, 2008 versus Northern Arizona.
"Idaho State did not play as much zone as I was expecting," said Earlywine. "The times that we've seen zone this year we've been very efficient attacking zones. I thought if they played zone we could free Milan up (for three-pointers). He made two early and they got real anxious guarding him. They fouled him a couple times, and put him on the free throw line."
The game was tied at 49 in the second half -- the eighth tie of the game -- when the Eagles went on a 9-0 run to take a 58-49 advantage with 7:44 to play. Stanojevic made all four free throws when Idaho State head coach Joe O’Brien picked up two technical fouls and was ejected from the game at the 8:01 mark.
But the Bengals, who fell to 4-12 overall and 1-1 in the league, fought back to knot the game at 60 at the 2:59 mark.
"When we took the nine point lead in the second half, I thought it was uncharacteristic of our guys to give that lead back," said Earlywine. "Then I was happy that we were tough enough to recapture the lead and hold on. Obviously the four points on the technical foul free throws helped a lot."
Junior Mark Dunn gave Eastern the lead for good with a pair of free throws and Stanojevic then made three to give EWU a 65-60 advantage. Dunn assisted on a basket by Moore with 47 seconds to play to close the 7-1 run. Valentine closed out the scoring with a pair of free throws with 25 seconds left and a rebound and driving layin with five seconds to play.
Eastern’s defense held Idaho State’s leading scorers Matt Stucki and Amorrow Morgan to a combined 19 points after entering the game averaging a combined total of nearly 25 per game. They were a combined 6-of-13 from the field, with Morgan finishing with 13 points and six assists. Stucki played just 19 minutes because of foul trouble and finished with six points.
"I thought we did a really good job guarding both Stucki and Morgan," said Earlywine. "I thought we guarded those guys really hard. The best players on teams have been hurting us, but I thought we stepped up and took a challenge tonight to guard those two guys."
The Eagles used an 8-1 run in the first half to take a 21-14 advantage with 6:06 left. Three different players scored in the run, including three-pointers by Stanojevic and Gary Gibson, as well as a driving layin by Valentine.
Eastern led 27-25 at halftime as Stanojevic scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field. Valentine added four points and three steals as the Eagles held ISU to just 22 field goal attempts in the first half. Eastern scored 11 points off seven ISU turnovers.
Kirk Earlywine COMMENTS
-- On Defense After Weber State Loss -- "Part of it is that we’re playing a little bit faster and we’ve changed a little bit offensively to score some more points. The challenge for our players and coaches is for us to score points and be efficient on offense while still defending well. The most disappointing thing about our defense at the moment is the fact that we are fouling too much, or at least we are being called for too many fouls. We have to look to see what we can change because when you put a team on the line 40 times it’s hard to win. There’s a delicate balance there. We need to continue to play hard on defense, but we need to do it without fouling. That’s going to be our challenge."
-- On 31-6 Run Against UC Irvine After Falling Behind 18-8 on Nov. 30 -- "Those 10 or 12 minutes where we were playing really well were preceded by eight or nine when we were playing really bad, so I guess it evens out. I don’t know why we made the mistakes we made early in the game to allow them to make so many three-point shots. They were just inexcusable in my eyes and we have to eliminate things like that in order for us to be good."
-- On Eagle Newcomers Against UC Irvine on Nov. 30 -- "I was really pleased with Andy Genao and Jeff Christensen. We received 28 points, 11 rebounds and only two turnovers out of those two players. They have continued to play very well and are staying within their roles in what we’ve asked them to do. That is encouraging. Mark Dunn continues to be very solid for us. He’s not going to win any beauty contests, but he continues to do what we need him to do to help us win games."
-- On Contributions from 2007-08 Redshirts Benny Valentine, Andy Genao and Jeff Christensen -- "It’s been critical and vital. Last year, we opened the season with only three players with NCAA Division I experience. And none of them had played a game for me. This year we have players that have been through it and those redshirts who also have a year in our system. They know what we want and how we want it. It’s a big factor, and those players are older as well. Jeff and Andy are both fifth-year seniors and Benny is a fourth-year junior. They aren’t as prone to the peaks and valleys of a college season as much as younger players might be. They understand how to stay the course so you don’t have those inconsistent swings in play."
-- On Continuing to Improve -- "We played very, very well at UC Irvine -- we rebounded well and we guarded well. But our block out and our conversion defense slipped noticeably in the next game. I told our players that a sign of a good team and a mature team is that when areas that are identified as needing to be improved or corrected, those things are improved and corrected immediately."
-- On Winning Against Experienced Texas Arlington -- "They made a terrific run late in the season in the NCAA Tournament, and they have guys who have been through big games and close games. It showed in their poise and they seemed to keep their focus. They made big shots and they had no panic in their eyes. That is a good basketball team and a good win for us."
-- Rodney Stuckey Returns to Eastern on Jan. 11 in Year He Would Have Been a Senior -- Consider it the Senior Day he was never able to receive.
Former Eastern Washington University men’s basketball All-American and current Detroit Piston Rodney Stuckey had his EWU jersey retired in ceremonies that took place on Sunday, Jan. 11 at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
The event took place in conjunction with Eastern’s Big Sky Conference game against Weber State that was televised live regionally on Altitude Sports and Entertainment. He spent more than an hour afterward signing autographs and taking photos with Eastern fans.
"I am very honored and humbled to have my EWU jersey retired," said Stuckey on Dec. 30. "I have so many wonderful memories from my college days and I’m thankful to the University, the fans, my coaches and my teammates."
Stuckey played his freshman and sophomore seasons at Eastern before becoming a first-round draft choice (15th overall) by the Pistons in the 2007 National Basketball Association draft. He became Detroit’s full-time starter at point guard on Dec. 9, and on Dec. 23 had a breakthrough game with 40 points, four assists and four steals in a 104-98 victory over Chicago.
He had another huge game with 38 points and seven assists in a 98-92 victory over Sacramento on Jan. 2 to help him earn NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. He helped the Pistons win four-straight games to earn the honor, averaging 23 points, 5.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds.
Detroit pushed its winning streak to seven before an 84-83 loss at Portland on Jan. 7 in which Stuckey scored 13 points and had seven assists. He had nine points and a pair of assists in a win at Denver on Jan. 9 and 19 points and two assists in a loss Jan. 10 at Utah. Following that road stretch, the Pistons were 14-5 in games Stuckey had started and 22-13 overall.
Considering that this would have been his senior season at EWU had he remained in college, it was appropriate that Stuckey was honored in such a manner. He spent three years on the EWU campus and still has many friends in Cheney, including former high school teammate Aaron Boyce, who is an All-America wide receiver for the Eagle football team. At the ceremony, Boyce presented a framed photo collage to Stuckey on behalf of EWU Athletics.
"I’m happy to share this experience with all the people who supported me throughout my college career," Stuckey said.
Stuckey was an All-American at Eastern -- both athletically and academically -- after averaging 24 points per game in each of his two seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07). He helped EWU win 30 games in two seasons and had a 3.34 grade point average. A 2004 graduate of Kentwood High School in Kent, Wash., Stuckey was a NCAA non-qualifier and had to sit out the 2004-05 season at EWU.
"We’ve talked about honoring Rodney by retiring his jersey for some time now," said Eastern Athletic Director Bill Chaves. "What he accomplished here in two seasons and Detroit in two more is nothing short of phenomenal, and it’s thrilling to watch his progress in the NBA. We’re excited to have him back on campus to give him the recognition he deserved but didn’t get because of how highly-regarded he was by the NBA."
Through 33 games this season (19 as a starter), the second-year pro was averaging 13.5 points, 5.0 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 29.2 minutes per game. In first 90 games of his career (21 as a starter), Stuckey was averaging 9.8 points, 3.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 22.7 minutes per game.
In his first four games as a full-time starter (including a three-game winning streak), he averaged a double-double -- 15.5 points and 10.0 assists. In his 40-point output against Chicago, Stuckey made 15-of-24 shots from the field with his outstanding driving and finishing ability. He also sank 9-of-11 free throws, and his passing has also been exceptional. In his first 16 games since taking over as a full-time starters, the Pistons were 11-5 as he averaged 18.1 points and 5.9 assists.
Although several Eastern football players have been honored previously in such a manner -- including the retired No. 84 jersey of Bob Picard -- it’s believed that no Eastern men’s basketball player has had his jersey retired. Eastern’s all-time leading basketball scorer (1,741) and rebounder (1,273) Ron Cox is another candidate after being drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1977, but an injury kept him from playing a game in the NBA.
Cox was inducted into the Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998, and Stuckey will no doubt join him as a member as soon as soon as he’s placed on the ballot. Another such professional is current Tennessee Titan offensive tackle Michael Roos, who is also a prime candidate to have his jersey retired in the near future. Roos recently became the first-ever Eastern football player to be selected to the Pro Bowl and was also selected as a first team All-Pro selection as one of the top two offensive tackles in the NFL.
"Rodney and Michael have both had unprecedented success in the professional ranks for former Eastern student-athletes," said Chaves. "We are extremely proud of them both. The great talent (Rodney) put on display for Eastern fans for two seasons is now being watched by a world-wide audience. It’s truly exciting."
More on Stuckey may be found at:
-- Eastern Kept Improving During Six-Game Losing Streak -- Despite a six-game losing streak, Eastern was at both its best and worst during the skid.
"We’ve done enough good things to give ourselves a chance to win, and now it’s time to take the next step," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine after the sixth loss of the skid. "Instead of simply being competitive and in those games with a chance to win, we need to make the plays to pull out a victory."
In its sixth loss of the losing streak, Montana used a 14-6 run mid-way through the second half to break away from a 35-all tie and win 60-52 on Jan. 31. The Eagles made just 33 percent of their shots, while the Grizzlies made 46 percent in a game in which the Eagles took 22 more shots, won the rebounding battle 38-31 and had only nine turnovers.
In a 69-65 loss at Montana State on Jan. 29, the Bobcats rallied from 10 points down in each half, using a 15-4 run to lead them to the four-point win. Eastern out-shot MSU 46 percent to 39 percent, but missed its last three field goals and its last two free throws as EWU went the final 2:58 without scoring.
On Jan. 21 in Cheney, Wash., the Grizzlies handed EWU a 63-50 loss at Reese Court -- representing Montana’s second road win in 10 games this season and EWU’s second-straight home setback. The Grizzlies opened a 15-point lead at halftime and withstood a late EWU rally for the win.
Prior to the losses to the Montana schools, Eastern was coming off an 83-61 loss at league favorite and defending champion Portland State on Jan. 24. The Eagles led by as many as seven late in the first half, but PSU runs of 24-5 and 15-0 turned the promising start into a blowout.
The losing streak started on Jan. 11 with a 77-69 home loss to Weber State in which EWU fell behind by as many as 17 points in the second half after a nearly five-minute scoreless stretch in the first half. The Eagles followed that with a 75-68 loss at Northern Colorado in which the Bears turned a one-point game into seven-point win in the final 32 seconds.
Eastern has played some good stretches of basketball in the last four outings of the streak, but consistency was a problem. Eastern rebounded well (29-25 against PSU and 38-31 against Montana on Jan. 31), took care of the ball well (just 14 turnovers total in two games versus Montana and only eight against MSU) and shot well (49 percent versus PSU and 46 percent against MSU). But they have also not rebounded well (41-32 versus Montana on Jan. 21 and 40-32 versus MSU), not handled the ball well (19 turnovers versus PSU) and not shot well (31 and 33 percent in games against Montana).
In 2008 at this juncture of the season, the Eagles were mired in a four-game losing streak -- all in games against Montana and Montana State -- to go from 3-3 in the league to 3-7. Eastern won three of its last six games, but the damage was done as EWU finished 6-10 in the league and failed to qualify for the league tournament for the second-straight season.
During its six-game losing streak, EWU made only 39 percent of its shots from the field, including only 28 percent of its three-point attempts (33-of-118). Opponents, meanwhile, made 47 percent from the field and 37 percent (46-of-123) from the arc.
But the most glaring difference was at the free throw line where Eastern was out-scored by more than double -- 107-52. Opponents received 70 more attempts from the stripe -- an average of nearly 12 per game. In fact, the Eagles had more field goals than their opponents (140 to 137) during the losing streak, with 62 more field goal attempts.
Scoring dry spells and opponent runs were Eastern’s undoing.
"Early in the year we were grinding out possessions and grinding out a full 40-minute game," said Earlywine prior to the MSU-UM weekend. "We haven’t done that as much lately. We are going through stretches where we don’t score, and at those times you have to be extraordinarily tough with the ball and rebounding. We are not doing that well enough for long enough to win right now."
-- Dry Spells and Scoring Runs -- Eastern games in January and late December were punctuated by long scoring dry spells for EWU and opponent runs.
Against both Montana schools at the end of January, second-half scoring runs of 15-4 by the Bobcats and 14-6 by the Grizzlies led to Eastern defeats. Prior to that, Eastern was out-scored 24-5 over an eight-minute span to turn a seven-point EWU lead at Portland State into a 12-point deficit. Later in the game, Eastern went 5:06 without scoring as PSU used a 15-0 run to win easily, 83-61.
On Jan. 11 at home, the Eagles went 4:54 without scoring as Weber State went on a 17-2 run to turn a 23-18 deficit into a 32-25 advantage in the 77-69 Wildcat win. Against Northern Arizona in a 72-49 road loss on Jan. 2, the Eagles went the final 7:57 without a field goal as they were out-scored 14-4 in that stretch. The Eagles went 9:11 without a point against Boise State, and on Dec. 20 versus Washington, Eastern had a stretch of 8:22 without a field goal and an additional 5:03 stretch without a point in the 80-53 loss.
But at other times this season, Eastern has had more than enough offense. The Eagles scored 87 points in an 87-74 win over Sacramento State on Jan. 4 after scoring just 97 combined in losses to BSU (57-48) and NAU (72-49). Before the Sac State victory, Eastern’s last win was a 90-87 victory on Dec. 22 over Evergreen State, which entered the game 7-2 and was the 16th-ranked team in NAIA Division II. The Geoducks were coming off an 82-68 win over that division’s No. 1 ranked team and defending national champion, Oregon Tech.
-- Infamy for Valentine and Joshua Lewis-- When Benny Valentine missed a free throw with a half-second remaining in the first half against Idaho State on Jan. 9, little did he know he would have so much in common with former Eagle Joshua Lewis.
Thanks to a 16-of-16 free throw effort in the second half, the Eagles finished with a 20-of-21 night from the line. The 95.2 percent accuracy equaled the school record set in a 95-77 loss at Portland on Dec. 10, 1994 in Portland, when EWU was also 20-of-21. The only player to miss was Lewis, who made 5-of-6 in the game. Eastern made its first eight and its last 12 in that game. Lewis is now living in the Los Angeles area and attended this year’s Eastern versus UC Irvine game.
-- Eagles Register First League Win on Dec. 6 -- Eastern opened Big Sky Conference play on Dec. 6 with a 61-55 victory over Montana State The league opener came less than a month into the 2008-09 campaign, and was the earliest start to the Big Sky schedule in EWU history. Benny Valentine finished with 15 points, four assists and three steals in the win over the Bobcats.
With the victory over MSU, the Eagles were in first place in the league for nearly a month.
"I will caution our players that we were 1-0 last year in the conference as well and ended up not playing in the conference tournament," said head coach Kirk Earlywine after the MSU win. "So while it’s a good start and it certainly beats the alternative of being 0-1, there is still a long ways to go."
-- More on Eastern’s Hot Start -- Eastern’s 6-2 start to the 2008-09 season was a complete turnaround from last year when the Eagles were 2-6 after eight games and had been out-scored by an average of more than 12 points per game. Eastern didn’t win its sixth game of the season until Dec. 22.
This season, EWU won its sixth game on Dec. 6 against Montana State. Through eight games, the Eagles had a 535-529 scoring advantage despite losing to a pair of Big Ten Conference foes by a combined 37 points. Eastern out-rebounded opponents by one per game, and had averaged just 12.5 turnovers per game.
As a result, Eastern won all four of its games decided by six points or fewer, and its victories came by margins of three, five, five, six, 10 and 12. Last season, Eastern was 3-6 in games decided by five points or less, with all six setbacks coming during conference play.
"The combination of us defending fairly well and limiting our turnovers have been the two things in particular (that have helped win close games)," explained Earlywine after the MSU win. "Our offensive rebounding hasn’t been overwhelming, but we seem to get them at the right time. Those three things have allowed us to win games, but our statistics as a whole makes you wonder how are we winning those. But it’s been timely, clutch plays, and somebody seems to make a basket at the right time. Andy Genao came up with three buckets, including two tough baskets, in the last 2:35 against Montana State. Maybe the stars are aligned right now because we are finding ways to win tough games."
The last time Eastern was 6-2 to start a season came in came in 2002-03 when that squad began the year 3-2 and stretched it to 7-2 with a four-game winning streak. 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. Current Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine was an assistant coach that season for the Wildcats, who were 14-0 in the league and 26-6 overall.
-- Four-Game Grind Ends With 3-1 Mark -- Eastern closed a stretch of four games in eight nights with an 88-67 loss at Minnesota on Nov. 26. 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.
"It seemed like those were the types of games that slipped away from us a year ago," said Earlywine, particularly of his team’s narrow victories over the Anteaters and Mavericks. "I don’t know if that means we are improved or the basketball gods are smiling on us at the moment. I know we are better at this point than we were a year ago at this time. How much I don’t know yet.
"Having a guard out there in Benny Valentine that can make plays and handle the ball against pressure certainly helps you in those late-game situations," added Earlywine. "Those are very good wins for us and are a sign that we’re advancing and becoming better as a program."
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 new Valentine and returning 6-9 center Brandon Moore.
-- Eagles Versus the Big Ten Conference -- Eastern is now 0-6 all-time versus the Big Ten Conference. Before this season, the last meeting against the league took place last November against Michigan in a 61-53 loss.
11/26/08 - L - Minnesota - 67-88 - A
11/14/08 - L - Illinois - 50-66 - A
11/23/07 - L - Michigan - 53-61 - ~
12/5/03 - L - Iowa - 54-70 - #
11/15/02 - L - Wisconsin - 55-81 - $
12/28/01 - L - Indiana - 60-87 - %
11/24/01 - L - Minnesota - 68-86 - A
11/25/00 - L - Michigan State - 61-83 - &
~Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage, Alaska
#Gazette Hawkeye Challenge in Iowa City, Iowa
$NABC Classic in Madison, Wisc.
%Ameritech Hoosier Classic in Indianapolis, Ind.
&Spartan Classic in Lansing, Mich.
A -- Away
-- Eagles Versus Ranked Teams -- This may be the first time since the 2002-03 season that Eastern has not played a nationally-ranked team. The Eagles have played 12 such games in the five seasons since then.
Eastern is 1-14 versus nationally-ranked teams -- including three games in the 2004-05 season alone as well as three the year before. Seven of the 13 games came under former head coach Mike Burns and five others came under Ray Giacoletti from 2000-2004.
12/5/07 vs. #3 Kansas - L, 47-85
11/9/07 vs. #10 Washington State - L, 41-68
12/15/06 vs. #22 Oregon - L, 74-100
11/24/06 vs. #16 Washington - L, 83-90
12/19/05 vs. #8 Gonzaga - L, 65-75
12/16/05 vs. #11 Washington - L, 74-91
12/28/04 vs. #14 Arizona - L, 45-79
12/21/04 vs. #13 Gonzaga - L, 70-83
12/5/04 vs. #14 Washington - L, 56-89
3/19/04 vs. #3 Oklahoma State - L, 56-75
12/31/03 vs. #16 Gonzaga - L, 49-70
11/21/03 vs. #14 Oklahoma - L, 59-69
11/15/01 vs. #10 St. Joseph's - W, 68-67
11/25/00 vs. #4 Michigan State - L, 61-83
1/21/85 vs. #10 DePaul - L, 50-72
-- Big Crowds -- The Eagles played in front of 14,422 fans at Illinois on Nov. 14, which is the sixth-largest crowd EWU has ever played against. A crowd of 11,977 were on hand on Nov. 26 when EWU played at Minnesota. Those were the 19th and 20th times since the 2000-01 season that Eastern has played in front of crowds in excess of 10,000 fans. Unfortunately, Eastern has failed to win in all 20 of those games.
Eastern’s first two games of the 2007-08 season drew crowds of 10,216 (at Washington State) and 12,016 (at New Mexico), Later in the year on Dec. 12, Eastern lost to Kansas at legendary Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan.
In the 2006 season, the Eagles played in front of 10,000 at Washington after the previous two games there drew 9,876 (2005) and 9,418 (2004). In the 2004-05 season, Eastern played in front of a crowd of 14,535 fans at Arizona, 10,216 at Wichita State and 12,000 against Gonzaga. Three of the 10,000+ crowds also came in the 2003-04 season. Several other games have been played in the first game of pre-season tournaments that have drawn at least that many fans, but the Eagles haven't faced the host team.
Here is a list of those crowds:
16,840 - 3/19/04 vs. Oklahoma State - L, 56-75
16,374 - 11/15/02 vs. Wisconsin - L, 55-81
16,300 - 12/5/07 vs. Kansas - L, 47-85
14,759 - 11/25/00 vs. Michigan State - L, 61-83
14,535 - 12/28/04 vs. Arizona - L, 45-79
14,422 - 11/14/08 vs. Illinois - L, 50-66
12,533 - 11/24/01 vs. Minnesota - L, 68-86
12,299 - 12/31/03 vs. Gonzaga - L, 49-70
12,016 - 11/12/06 vs. New Mexico - L, 57-92
12,000 - 12/21/04 vs. Gonzaga - L, 70-83
11,977 - 11/26/08 vs. Minnesota - L, 67-88
11,879 - 12/19/05 vs. Gonzaga - L, 65-75
11,268 - 11/21/03 vs. Oklahoma - L, 59-69
11,031 - 12/5/03 vs. Iowa - L, 54-70
11,000 - 12/22/02 vs. Gonzaga - L, 64-67
10,432 - 12/28/01 vs. Indiana - L, 60-87
10,216 - 11/20/04 vs. Wichita State - L, 62-80
10,215 - 11/9/06 vs. Washington State - L, 41-68
10,210 - 3/12/03 vs. Weber State - L, 57-60
10,000 - 11/24/06 vs. Washington - L, 83-90
-- Schedule Tough, but More Manageable in 2008-09 -- Eastern’s 2008-09 schedule is once again difficult, with road games scheduled against the likes of Illinois, Minnesota, Hawaii, Washington and Boise State. However, back-to-back road games are rare.
"It’s a challenging schedule, but it’s a little more playable than a year ago in terms of the balance of home games versus away games," explained Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. "We don’t get stuck on the road too long."
In all, Eastern has six non-conference home games and seven on the road. Eastern opens the season at Illinois and UC Irvine, but after that, only during the league season does Eastern play back-to-back road games again. Last year, Eastern had only two home games in its first 11 outings of the season.
As a result, Eastern was just 3-8 to start the season before going 8-9 in their next 17 games. The Eagles ended the season with a pair of road losses and finished the season 8-5 at Reese Court and 3-14 away from home.
"I like looking at this schedule more than the one we had last year," said Earlywine. "I like the balance of home games versus road games, and I like the fact we aren’t playing more than two consecutive road games."
Last season, Eastern played a trio of NCAA Tournament teams (Kansas, Washington State and Portland State), and this year the same is true. Texas-Arlington, which lost to Memphis 87-63 in the first round, plays at EWU on Nov. 22. Boise State, a 79-61 loser to Louisville, hosts the Eagles on Dec. 29 and is scheduled to play at Eastern the following season.
The Eagles will play Big Sky Conference rival Portland State on Jan. 24 before hosting the Vikings in Cheney, Wash., on Feb. 28. Last season, Eastern lost at Kansas 85-47 and PSU fell to the eventual national champions 85-61 in the NCAA Tournament.
"We have some games against the power conferences that our guys are really excited about," said Earlywine of the schedule. Besides games against the Big 10, Pacific 10 and Western Athletic Conference, Eastern plays a home-and-home series against UC Irvine, a team from the Big West Conference which won seven of its last nine games of the 2007-08 season.
League play – believe it or not – starts just seven games into the season with a home game versus Montana State on Dec. 6. A nine-team league and the participation of some teams in the ESPN Bracketbusters in February, necessitates the early start.
"I’m definitely not in favor of playing conference games the third week of the season," said Earlywine. "But one good thing is that it’s a conference game on a Saturday at home with our students here. We did not have too many of those last year. We hope we will have a heckuva crowd with our students right before final exams with the Bobcats coming to town."
Earlywine expects Portland State to be the early favorite to repeat as league champions. The past two seasons there have been six first-year coaches in the league, and Earlywine thinks those two years of building programs by those schools will payoff this season.
"The word out there is that everybody thinks the Big Sky is going to be very, very good. I would agree," he said. "Portland State and Montana are loaded, and you can never count out Northern Arizona – Mike Adras keeps doing it year-after-year. And I think Idaho State has a chance to make a huge jump. The league is going to be good."
-- EWU in Exhibitions -- Until falling 58-56 to Carroll College on Nov. 1, Eastern had won its last 12 exhibition games, which are contests that do not count in EWU’s season record or statistics. It’s last exhibition loss came on Nov. 13, 1999, to the Northwest Basketball Camp (NBC) Thunder. In that 73-71 loss, former Pepperdine player Shann Ferch made a three-point play with 19 seconds to lift NBC to the win. Here is a list of recent exhibition games:
11/8/08 - Puget Sound - W, 90-66
11/1/08 - Carroll - L, 56-58
11/3/07 - Pacific - W, 91-49
11/4/06 - Northwest Nazarene - W, 98-55
11/13/05 - UC-San Diego - W, 75-44
11/13/04 - Central Washington - W, 79-63
11/12/03 - Ukraine Touring Team - W, 83-55
11/7/03 - Northwest Sports - W, 100-79
11/7/02 - Northwest Basketball Camp (NBC) Thunder - W, 99-72
11/1/02 - Northwest Sports - W, 117-73
11/2/01 - NBC Thunder - W, 108-106
10/10/01 - Alumni - W, 94-85
11/14/00 - SON Blue Angels - W, 90-78
11/4/00 - NBC Thunder - W, 72-63
11/13/99 - NBC Thunder - L, 71-73
11/5/99 - The Hoop USA - W, 106-64
-- Three Eagles Miss Carroll Game -- Of the three Eagles who missed Eastern’s exhibition opener against Carroll College, returning center Brandon Moore had a knee injury and returned to play 14 minutes against Puget Sound. Forward Chris Busch and guard Adris DeLeon were not cleared to play.
The absence of those three players made it difficult for Earlywine to get a good feel for his team and how the team’s five newcomers blend with six returning letter winners and three returning redshirts in game situations.
"It was hard because there are some questions I have about this year’s team that we needed the exhibition games and early-season games to answer in terms of combinations in our lineup, minutes and so forth," explained Earlywine. "I couldn’t get any of those questions answered against Carroll.
"I didn’t see as much personnel as I would have liked, and obviously I was disappointed but not discouraged at all," he added. "I knew that when we scheduled Carroll that they would come in and be competitive and would compete. I didn’t want to schedule somebody that we were going to beat by 20, 25, or 30 points and not get anything out of the game.
-- Earlywine Sees Carroll Loss as Learning Opportunity -- Earlywine wasn’t as concerned about the loss to Carroll as he was with the learning opportunities.
"Like I told our guys, that loss will be long forgotten and meaningless in March if we can use the things that we learned from that loss to get better and improve," he said. "We need to keep taking steps in the direction we need to go.
"I also told our players that Ohio State (by Findlay) and Michigan State (by Grand Valley State) were defeated by non-Division I teams last year," Earlywine added. "It’s not the end of the world. What we do from here to improve is much more important than the final score in an exhibition game."
-- Positives from Carroll Game -- Returning starter Trey Gross scored 17 to lead the Eagles against Carroll, and returning guard Milan Stanojevic chipped in 11. Six-foot-8 Mark Dunn added seven points and 10 rebounds, and Gary Gibson had six points, three steals and three assists -- all in the second half as he fueled EWU’s comeback from a 19-point deficit.
"Certainly, Mark Dunn’s play was a positive," Earlywine said. "Double-digit rebounds for him was a pleasant surprise. His conditioning continues to get a little better and a little better and his play was very encouraging. He certainly played more minutes against Carroll than he would have if Brandon had been healthy.
"I also thought Gary Gibson’s play in the second half was a positive," he added. "But those two things were really about the extent of the good news from the Carroll game."
-- Practice Time a Premium for Eagles -- One of Kirk Earlywine’s early-season concerns in preparing for a mid-November opener is the lack of practice time prior to that opener after practices began on the late date of Oct. 17.
"I think more than anything else, the five fewer days of practice this year makes it difficult," he explained. "This year it was the nature of the calendar -- we start practice on the Friday nearest to October 15th. A year ago that was October 12th and this year it was on October 17th. So we lost five days of practice this year.
"I think as you establish a program and have more returning guys in your program, that’s probably a little easier to overcome," he said. "But it’s not enough time when you have new players and are trying to establish a program. We were nowhere near to being ready to play a full game against Carroll -- we hadn’t even scrimmaged or had referees in our gym yet. We certainly looked like it."
-- Moore Impressive in Last Eight Games of 2007-08 Season-- Sophomore Brandon Moore averaged 11.3 points and 7.6 rebounds on 53.1 percent shooting in the last eight games of the 2007-08 season. He closed the season with seven points and 12 rebounds in a loss at Portland State, but in his previous game at Northern Colorado he played just 22 minutes because of early foul trouble and finished with only two points and one rebound.
The 6-foot-9 Moore helped lead the Eagles to a crucial home sweep over Weber State (69-57) and Idaho State (63-53) in mid-February as he scored 35 points and had 14 rebounds. He made 14-of-20 shots in the two games and added two blocked shots and two steals. Six of his rebounds were on the offensive end, including four offensive boards versus Weber State.
-- More on the Big Sky Conference Polls -- Ken Bone’s Portland State Vikings have been selected by the coaches and the media to capture the 2008-09 Big Sky Conference men’s basketball title in preseason polls released Oct. 22. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams.
Portland State, which finished 23-10 in 2007-08, earned seven first-place votes from the coaches and 63 total points. The Vikings earned 23 of 26 first-place votes from the media and 230 total points.
Portland State won the regular-season title in 2007-08, finishing 14-2 in conference. The Vikings won their first ever postseason championship, downing Northern Arizona 67-51 in the championship game. Portland State’s season came to an end with a loss to eventual national champion Kansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Vikings return Big Sky MVP Jeremiah Dominguez, a senior guard from Salem, Ore. Dominguez averaged 14.2 points and four assists per game. The Vikings are expected to be bolstered by Phil Nelson (Washington), Dominic Waters (Hawai’i) and Jamie Jones (Portland), who all sat out last season after transferring from Division I institutions.
The University of Montana was selected second in both polls. The Grizzlies earned two first-place votes from the coaches and 56 total points. Montana also earned two first-place votes from the media and 180 total points. Wayne Tinkle’s Grizzlies finished the 2007-08 season 14-16, losing in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Championship. The Grizzlies will be led by senior forward Jordan Hasquet, and junior guard Ryan Staudacher. Montana will also benefit from the addition of Division I transfers Jack McGillis (Oregon State) and Michael Taylor (Eastern Washington).
Joe O’Brien’s Idaho State Bengals were selected third in both polls. The Bengals received one first-place vote from the media, and 169 total points. In the coaches’ poll, the Bengals earned 49 total points. Idaho State returns four starters from a team that finished 8-8 in conference play last season, including senior guard Matt Stucki and junior guard Amorrow Morgan. The Bengals returned seven of the top eight scorers from last year’s squad.
Northern Arizona, which has advanced to the Big Sky Championship game three consecutive years, was picked fourth by the coaches and fifth by the media. Weber State, which claimed the 2006-07 championship, was tabbed fourth by the media and fifth by the coaches. Northern Arizona will be led by senior guard Josh Wilson, who ranks fifth on the Big Sky’s career assists list with 551. Weber State will be led by senior forward Daviin Davis and senior guard Kellen McCoy.
Northern Colorado, entering its third year of league play, was picked sixth in both polls. Tad Boyle’s Bears return four starters and nine lettermen from the 2007-08 team, which won 13 overall games. Leading the way is senior forward Jabril Banks, who averaged 13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior.
Rounding out the polls were Eastern Washington, Montana State and Sacramento State. EWU was picked seventh by the coaches and eighth by the media. Montana State was picked seventh by the media and eighth by the coaches. Sacramento State, which enters the season with new coach Brian Katz, was selected ninth in both polls.
Weber State will be the first team to play this season, opening against Miami, Ohio, on Wednesday, Nov. 12 in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Westwood, Calif. Six other Big Sky teams open play on Friday, Nov. 14.
The Big Sky Championship begins with quarterfinal games on Saturday, March 7. The semifinals and championship will be played on Tuesday, March 10, and Wednesday, March 11 at the home of the regular-season champion.
The semifinal games will be televised on Altitude Sports & Entertainment. The championship game will be shown live on ESPN2.
Team (First-place votes) - Total Points
1. Portland State (7) - 63
2. Montana (2) 56
3. Idaho State - 49
4. Northern Arizona - 41
5. Weber State - 34
6. Northern Colorado - 29
7. Eastern Washington - 22
8. Montana State - 14
9. Sacramento State 10
Team (First-place votes) - Total Points
1. Portland State (23) - 230
2. Montana (2) 180
3. Idaho State (1) - 169
4. Weber State 165
5. Northern Arizona - 153
6. Northern Colorado - 104
7. Montana State - 76
8. Eastern Washington - 64
9. Sacramento State - 38
-- Eastern Just The Fifth BSC School to Make Nine-Straight Tournament Appearances -- Although its streak came to an end in the 2006-07 season, Eastern is just the fifth school in league history to make nine-straight appearances in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Eastern started the streak back in 1998 after making just one trip to the tourney in their first 10 seasons as a member of the conference.
Weber State had its string of 24-straight appearances stopped in 2005-06, and Montana had a string of 21-straight from 1978-98. The other streaks were 16 by Idaho (1981-96) and 11 by Nevada (1982-92). Two years ago, Eastern equaled the streak of eight by Northern Arizona (1997-04).
Interestingly, Montana's 77-69 victory over the Lumberjacks on Feb. 28, 2005, extended Eastern's streak and ended NAU's. Eastern's streak started in 1998 with an end-of-year victory at Montana. That "winner advance, loser eliminated" game ended Montana's 21-year streak.
Eastern is now 7-9 in 10 appearances in the league tournament. Eastern ended its season with losses to Montana in both 2005 and 2006, but the year before won the title with a 71-59 championship game victory over Northern Arizona.
Here is a list of Eastern’s appearances in the Big Sky Tournament.
2006 - Semifinal (Flagstaff, Ariz.) - #3 seed vs. #2 Montana - L, 71-73 (ot)
2006 - Quarterfinal (Cheney, Wash.) - #3 seed vs. #6 Portland State - W, 81-75
2005 - Quarterfinal (Missoula, Mont.) - #6 seed vs. #3 Montana - L, 48-58
2004 - Championship (Cheney, Wash.) - #1 seed vs. #2 Northern Ariz. - W, 71-59
2004 - Semifinals (Cheney, Wash.) - #1 seed vs. #5 Weber State - W, 72-53
2003 - Championship (Ogden, Utah) - #2 seed vs. #1 Weber State - L, 57-60
2003 - Semifinals (Ogden, Utah) - #2 seed vs. #4 Idaho State - W, 76-67
2002 - Championship (Bozeman, Mont.) - #2 seed vs. #5 Montana - L, 66-70
2002 - Semifinals (Bozeman, Mont.) - #2 seed vs. #3 Weber State - W, 62-57
2001 - Championship (Northridge, Calif.) - #2 seed vs. #1 CS Northridge - L, 58-73
2001 - Semifinals (Northridge, Calif.) - #2 seed vs. #5 Northern Arizona - W, 58-53
2000 - Semifinals (Missoula, Mont.) - #2 seed vs. #3 Northern Arizona - L, 65-82
1999 - Quarterfinals (Ogden, Utah) - #6 seed vs. #3 Portland State - L, 74-80
1998 - Quarterfinals (Flagstaff, Ariz.) - #3 seed vs. #6 CS Northridge - L, 98-104 (ot)
1990 - Championship (Boise, Idaho) - #2 seed vs. #1 Idaho - L, 62-65
1990 - Semifinals (Boise, Idaho) - #2 seed vs. #5 Weber State - W, 83-67