Feb. 13, 2009
It’s not exactly a must-win game, but it’s certainly going to be treated like one for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team.
With just three league games to play, EWU’s quest of making the post-season for the first time in three seasons is approaching the must-win stage. On Saturday (Feb. 14), in a game televised live regionally on Altitude Sports and Entertainment at 3:07 p.m. Pacific time, Eastern plays a crucial game at one of the teams it’s currently battling in the league standings -- Idaho State.
The Eagles are now seventh at 5-8 in the conference and 11-14 overall while the Bengals are tied with Montana State for fifth in the league with a 5-6 record. The Bengals are 8-17 on the season after scoring 55 second-half points to register a huge, 78-69 home win against Portland State Thursday (Feb. 12). Eastern, meanwhile, slipped out of sixth with a 74-57 loss at Weber State on Thursday.
"I guess it’s not absolutely a must-win game," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. "I don’t pay that close of attention to the standings to know the scenarios, but at this point it sure seems to me like a must-win game for us."
The Eagles had 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 three Big Sky Conference games of the year if EWU hopes to make the post-season for the first time in three seasons.
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.
A win Saturday at ISU would put Eastern percentage points ahead of the Bengals for sixth place in the league standings. The Eagles would be 6-8 in the league (.429 percentage), compared to the Bengals at 5-7 (.417). Coupled with a 71-65 home win over ISU earlier this season, a win Saturday in Pocatello, Idaho, would also give Eastern a significant tiebreaker advantage over ISU by sweeping the season series.
A loss Saturday and the Eagles will certainly be on the outside looking in, and needing lots of help in the last two weeks of the season.
"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."
Eastern has won 18 of the past 25 meetings against the Bengals, but is just 9-18 all-time in Pocatello.
After closing the month of January with a 2-7 record, the Eagles are now 2-1 in February. Before a 67-46 win over Sac State on Feb. 5 -- 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.
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-- Playoff Scenarios -- Saturday’s game at Idaho State could go a long way in determining whether or not the Eagles and the Bengals will qualify for the six-team Big Sky Conference Tournament. For the Eagles, a victory would not only put them percentage points ahead of ISU in the standings, but it would also give EWU a tiebreaker advantage by virtue of a season sweep.
With Weber State (10-1), Montana (9-3) and Portland State (8-4) holding down the top three spots in the league, it appears five schools are fighting for the other three berths. Entering action on Feb. 14, only two games separate fourth from eighth. After head-to-head competition, the next tiebreaker is record versus teams in descending order of finish. Among those five teams, only Montana State has registered a victory over league-leading Weber State; only Montana State and Idaho State have knocked off Portland State; and only Idaho State has defeated Montana.
Below are the records and remaining league games for those teams EWU is fighting with in the conference standings.
-- Northern Colorado (6-6) Remaining Games: 2/19 at Portland State, 2/21 at Eastern Washington, 2/26 vs. Montana, 3/1 vs. Montana State.
-- Montana State (5-6) Remaining Games: 2/14 at Sacramento State, 2/19 vs. Idaho State, 2/25 at Portland State, 3/1 at Northern Colorado, 3/3 vs. Weber State.
-- Idaho State (5-6) Remaining Games: 2/14 vs. Eastern Washington, 2/19 at Montana State, 2/21 at Montana, 2/26 vs. Sacramento State, 2/28 vs. Northern Arizona.
-- Eastern Washington (5-8) Remaining Games: 2/14 at Idaho State, 2/21 vs. Northern Colorado, 2/28 vs. Portland State.
-- Northern Arizona (4-8) Remaining Games: 2/14 vs. Montana, 2/21 vs. Sacramento State, 2/26 at Weber State, 2/28 at Idaho State.
-- 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.