Eastern's fast start helps Eagles clinch a postseason berth
The Eagles started Saturday the way they finished on Thursday.
The Eastern Washington University women's basketball team raced to a 15-0 lead and went on to defeat Weber State 65-52 Saturday (Feb. 19) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. The win clinched a postseason berth for the Eagles for the second-straight season, and seventh time under head coach Wendy Schuller.
The victory completed a weekend sweep for the Eagles, who improved to 7-5 in the Big Sky Conference and 11-14 overall. On Thursday (Feb. 17), EWU scored the last nine points of the game to overcome a four-point deficit and defeat Northern Arizona 59-54. Eastern held the Lumberjacks scoreless for the last 1:58 of that game, including four missed shots and a turnover.
Saturday, Weber State missed its first six shots and had eight turnovers before scoring its first basket 8:23 into the game.
"In the first half, we did a great job of seeing the ball," said Schuller. "We executed our game plan defensively, and came up with a lot of stops as a result."
Eastern led by as many as 21 points in the first half and 24 in the second. Junior guard Chene Cooper paced the Eagles with 18 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals, while junior Brianne Ryan chipped in 11 points.
Cooper finished the weekend with 41 points, including 23 versus NAU - one shy of her career high. Cooper had 12 assists, 10 rebounds and four steals in the two games combined.
The Wildcats fell to 1-11 in the Big Sky and 5-19 overall with the loss. Eastern, which won last year's regular-season title and hosted the Big Sky Conference Tournament, has qualified for postseason play for the seventh time in 10 seasons under Schuller. The top six teams earn berths in the Big Sky Tournament, held March 10-12 at the site of the regular-season champion.
The Eagles made 38 percent of their field goal attempts, including 47 percent in the first half. Eastern made a season-best 7-of-13 three-point shots for 54 percent, featuring a 5-of-7 performance in the first half. The previous best for the Eagles was 47 percent (8-of-17) at Weber State in a 73-67 win on Feb. 12. Eastern also out-rebounded WSU 35-30.
"We are a very good team when we can get up and down the floor," said Schuller. "We were able to do that in the first half. We were aggressive on the glass, and shared the ball really well."
Freshman guard Justine Johnson led Weber State with 17 points. The Wildcats made its first 17 free throws before finishing 18-of-22 in the game for 81.8 percent. WSU was plagued by turnovers, committing 26 in the game. The Eagles scored 20 points off the WSU's miscues.
"Forcing 26 turnovers in a game is a really good thing for us," applauded Schuller. "It was great to see us get into those passing lanes and make things happen."
After EWU took a 48-24 lead with 15:18 left in the game, the Wildcats rallied with a 13-0 run, as they held the Eagles scoreless for 6:10. Weber State completed a 20-5 run to pull within nine with 6:38 left in the game. But a trey by Ryan gave the Eagles a 12-point edge at the 6:28 mark, then Chenise Pakootas made another trey 50 seconds later to give EWU a 13-point cushion. Weber State came no closer than 12 the rest of the way.
Interestingly, Northern Arizona had used the same 20-5 run to turn an 11-point deficit into a four-point advantage late in that game on Thursday.
"Weber State made some adjustments at halftime, and hit a lot of big shots down the stretch," said Schuller. "They really stepped up and kept fighting. I certainly give them credit for not giving up in a game they could have after the first half."
The game versus Weber State was the 69th meeting in history between the Eagles and Wildcats. WSU leads the all-time series, 44-25, but Eastern has now won the last six in a row. Since Schuller took over the reins of the EWU women's program in the 2001-02 season, the Eags have gone 5-5 when playing Weber State at Reese Court.
The Eagles will play the Montana schools in its last four conference games of the season, starting with road games at Montana State on Thursday, Feb. 24 and Montana on Saturday, Feb. 26. The Bobcats are currently second in the league standings with a 9-3 record, while Montana is third at 8-3. Both teams have also clinched berths to the Big Sky tournament.