March 6, 2009
It's truly an oddity, but there will be a postseason after all for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team.
The Eagles have agreed to extend their season and play Saint Mary's College of the West Coast Conference next Friday (March 13) at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time at the McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, Calif. The game is expected to be carried live via radio on 1050-AM in Spokane, with Larry Weir calling the play-by-play.
Eastern, 12-17, thought it had ended its season last Saturday (Feb. 28) with a 68-62 overtime loss to Portland State. The setback eliminated the Eagles from contention for one of six berths into the Big Sky Conference Tournament, which starts this Saturday (March 7).
Saint Mary's, meanwhile, is 24-5 and enters the now-underway West Coast Conference Tournament as the No. 2 seed and has a bye to Sunday's semifinals. However, All-America candidate Patrick Mills has missed the last nine games with a broken hand, and SMC was looking for another game to help better prepare the sophomore guard for an anticipated NCAA Tournament berth or invitation to one of the other postseason national tourneys.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for us to go play a very, very good team with a player who is most likely a lottery pick in the NBA Draft," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine of the agreement that was reached today (March 6). "They are a team that is most likely going to be in the NCAA Tournament and are capable of making a good run in the tournament."
Both the Eagles and Gaels are able to utilize different NCAA schedule exceptions to enable them to add a game at this late date. Eastern has played in the NCAA limit of 29 games, but EWU's game at Hawaii in December is exempt from that restriction. Saint Mary's played three of its 29 games in the 76 Classic in Anaheim, putting it one game short of the alternative NCAA limitation of 27 games plus one qualifying regular-season multiple team event.
Earlywine told his players about the possibility late Thursday afternoon, and joyous EWU players quickly hit the court as Earlywine and his staff resumed their recruiting efforts at high school and junior college tournaments.
"Needless to say, they were really excited about it -- the whole team was," Earlywine said of the team's reaction. "That was one of the conditions that I had set in my mind for us to go play the game -- all the players had to want to play and it had to be unanimous. I thought they would be, but I wasn't 100 percent sure. But they are excited and I'm excited."
Four Eastern seniors -- Milan Stanojevic, Adris DeLeon, Andy Genao and Jeff Christensen -- will get the opportunity to play one more game in their collegiate careers. And for the team's six underclassmen -- including second team All-Big Sky Conference selection Benny Valentine -- the game helps them build for next year.
"As a coach and even during my own playing career, many times I have heard guys say, `What I would give to be able to play more game,'" said Earlywine. "And in this case, they are going to get to play one more game.
"I'm looking at it as another game for four seniors who have contributed a lot to this program," he added. "And for our other six players, it gives them another game under their belt in trying to build for next year."
Mills, who scored 20 points for Australia against the United States in last summer's Olympic Games, is averaging 18.7 points, 3.9 assists and 2.4 steals per game for the Gaels. But he hasn't played since suffering a broken hand in the first half at Gonzaga on Jan. 29 and undergoing surgery on Feb. 4. Saint Mary's was 18-1 at the time, and he scored 18 first-half points in helping SMC to a 38-32 halftime lead over the Bulldogs. But without Mills in the lineup, the Gaels lost that game and three others to fall out of the national rankings. He was cleared to practice again on March 2.
Mills is supported by 6-foot-11 Omar Samhan and 6-7 Diamon Simpson, who have combined for an average of more than 27 points and nearly 20 rebounds per game. Samhan averages 13.7 points and 9.2 rebounds, and Simpson is averaging 13.6 points and 10.7 rebounds. Carlin Hughes is averaging 8.4 points and 3.6 assists per game and has made 47 three-pointers, second only to the 51 by Mills.
"They only have one loss with Mills in the lineup," said Earlywine of the challenge ahead. "All of our players saw him in the game against United States last year and what he did in that game. I think our players will be every bit as excited for this game as they were for our first game of the year at Illinois."
The teams have one common opponent this season, Portland. Eastern defeated the Pilots 63-58, while Saint Mary's split with Portland, falling 84-66 on the road and prevailing 77-65 in Moraga.
Earlywine will continue recruiting efforts through Saturday as the team continues its re-conditioning efforts. Practices will begin on Monday with the Eagles expected to fly to Northern California the day of the game.
"I'm a little more concerned about our players forgetting out-of-bounds plays and set plays in a week than I am the absence of conditioning," said Earlywine of the week off. "We'll spend Monday reviewing to make sure they haven't completely forgotten things, then we'll start preparation for Saint Mary's on Tuesday."
Saint Mary's is coached by Randy Bennett, who is in his eighth season at the helm. He spent the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons as an assistant coach at the University of Idaho under Tim Floyd, who is now head coach at USC. Bennett was also an assistant coach at Saint Louis under current Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar.
Eastern is 2-2 all-time versus Saint Mary's, including an 88-80 Eagle victory in Cheney in the most recent meeting on Nov. 26, 2002. The Eagles finished 18-13 and advanced to the NIT that season, a year before EWU advanced to its first and only NCAA Tournament.
Eastern lost 73-67 in Moraga on Dec. 22, 2001, in Bennett's first year as Saint Mary's head coach. Eastern's head coach in the last two meetings with the Gaels was Ray Giacoletti, who is now an assistant coach at Gonzaga.
The Eagles also beat the Gaels on Dec. 29, 1989, in Cheney and lost to them 76-56 on Dec. 19, 1988, on a neutral court.
-- The Last Time They Played . . . Nov. 26, 2002 in Cheney . . . Eastern Washington 88, Saint Mary's 80 -- Alvin Snow and Chris Hester combined for 41 points as Eastern Washington held off Saint Mary's 88-80 in a non-conference men's basketball game Nov. 26, 2002, at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Snow made 9-of-15 shots from the field and Hester made 9-of-11 as the Eagles made 59 percent for the game. Saint Mary's made 54 percent from the field including 7-of-13 three-point attempts.
Brendon Merritt added 15 points, including 13 in the second half when the Gaels chipped away at a 16-point Eagle lead to pull within five in the final minute. Merritt made 11-of-13 free throws, and freshman Danny Pariseau made 7-of-8 to finish with 10 points. Marc Axton and Gregg Smith each chipped in nine points, and had career highs with six and three assists, respectively.
Eastern took an early 22-12 lead, and led by 12 on several occasions before setting for a 38-28 halftime advantage. The Eagles took their largest lead at 57-41 with 14:30 to play before the Gaels used hot three-point shooting to get back in it.
Saint Mary's pulled as close as five with 48 seconds to play, but the Eagles made nine-straight free throws -- two by Snow and seven by Pariseau -- in the final 51 seconds to ice the win.
-- The Last Time They Played in Moraga . . . Dec. 22, 2001 . . . Saint Mary's 73, Eastern Washington 67 -- Despite a furious 21-4 Eagle rally in the closing minutes, an earlier 16-0 run by Saint Mary's put Eastern Washington into a major hole it couldn't climb out of as the Gaels defeated the Eagles 73-67 Dec. 22, 2001, in Moraga, Calif.
"We showed a lot of heart and character, but we came up short at the end," Eagle head coach Ray Giacoletti said.
The Eagles trailed by just two at 41-39 early in the second half when the roof caved in. Several minutes later, the Gaels finished off a 16-0 run with a three-point play by Ethnie Stubbs. Just like that, Saint Mary's led 57-39 with 10 minutes to play.
The Gaels led by as many as 21 at 62-41 before Eastern cut the lead to 64-52 with 4 1/2 minutes to play. A three-point play by Jason Humbert cut the lead to 66-58, then Alvin Snow recovered a loose ball and had a steal that led to four quick points and pull Eastern to within 66-62 with 1:06 left.
Eastern forced a turnover on the next Saint Mary's possession, but Jason Lewis couldn't convert on a driving layin. The Gaels clinched the win by making 5-of-6 free throws in the final 48 seconds.
In the first half, Eastern started the game with four-straight turnovers and then missed its first two shots. The Eagles tied the game at nine, then led by as many as seven at 30-23 with 3:08 left. But Saint Mary's rallied back to take a 35-34 lead at halftime.
Six-foot-10 backup center Gregg Smith, still getting back into game shape after missing three games with a hip injury, led the Eagles with 13 points. Two true freshmen were also in double figures, with Marc Axton finishing with 12 and Darren Cooper adding 10. Humbert also had 10 points for the Eagles, and shared team-high honors with Smith in rebounding with five.
Saint Mary's out-rebounded Eastern 35-31 and made 26-of-32 free throws for 81 percent. Eastern made just 33 percent of its shots in the second half, and only 40 percent in the game. Eastern also had 23 turnovers.