March 10, 2011

Sweet Revenge! Eagles Knock Off Bobcats, 77-68, to Advance to BSC Tournament Seminfinals

Senior Tatjana Sparavalo paces Eagles in win with career-high 28 points, including 5-of-8 from downtown

Third time's the charm for the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team.

Meeting for the third-straight Thursday, the Eagles finally found redemption, as it defeated the Bobcats of Montana State, 77-68, in the quarterfinal round of the Big Sky Conference Championships in Portland, Ore. Eastern was coming off two-consecutive losses to MSU in the final two weeks of the regular season.

The win on Thursday (March 10) also avenged a heartbreaking loss suffered in last year's tournament semifinal, when the No. 6 seeded Bobcats upset No. 1 seed EWU on its home floor in Cheney, 65-57.

"It was payback day," proclaimed senior Tatjana Sparavalo, who led Eastern with a career-high 28 points in the quarterfinal victory on Thursday. "We feel fantastic to get this win because they took it from us last year. But we came here to win it all, so we are already refocusing and thinking ahead to tomorrow."

The Eagles will face host-school and No. 1 seed Portland State in the semifinal round on Friday (March 11) at 7:05 p.m. at the Peter W. Stott Center. The Vikings won the 2010 Big Sky Conference tournament title, and then earned the No. 1 seed this year with a 12-4 mark in league play. Portland State and Eastern split the regular-season series, with each team winning on its home floor during the 2010-11 campaign.

In the first two meetings of the regular season against MSU, the Eagles struggled tremendously to knock down shots. Montana State held EWU to just 37-of-124 (29.8 percent) from the field, including a bleak 5-of-27 effort from (18.5 percent) three-point range. But in its third go-around, the Eagles found their stroke, converting 26-of-62 (42 percent) shots, nine of which came from beyond the arc. Eastern scored 31 more points against Montana State on Thursday in Portland than it had the previous week in Cheney.

The offensive success enjoyed by EWU was a direct result of its stringent defensive effort. The Eags forced 21 Montana State turnovers, including five in the final six minutes of the contest.

"Our defense is what got us going today," said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. "When we perform like that on the defensive end – getting stops and creating turnovers – our offense thrives. That is when this team is at its best, when we can get up and down like we did tonight."

After holding MSU to 36 percent shooting in the first half, Eastern enjoyed a slim one-point lead (29-28) at intermission. The Eagles scored eight of the first 12 points in the second half, but right after junior Brianne Ryan drained her second three of the game, MSU answered with an 8-0 run, which included back-to-back treys by Katie Bussey and Lyndi Seidensticker.

Montana State had pulled ahead by five at the 14:54 mark, but Eastern responded in a big way, scoring 15 unanswered points over the next 2:25. During the surge, Sparavalo hit two three pointers, freshman Aubrey Ashenfelter buried a trey of her own and Ryan and senior Julie Piper added a couple of layups.

The Eagles had earned their biggest lead of the night at 54-44 with 12:06 remaining on the game clock, but Montana State would not back down. The Bobcats scored 14 of the next 20 points to pull within two (60-58) at 8:04.

On Eastern's next possession, Sparavalo was sent to the line after getting fouled on a three-point attempt. She knocked down all three shots from the charity stripe to put Eastern back up by five at the 7:42 mark.

With just over two minutes remaining, Montana State's Bussey nailed a trey from 25 feet out, which brought the Bobcats to within one at 69-68. Eastern missed its next shot, but countered with an smart defensive play, as it forced MSU to take an off-balance three on the other end. EWU's junior point guard Chene Cooper corralled the defensive rebound and found Piper, who then slipped the ball to Sparavalo in the key. The senior from Novi Sad, Serbia converted the layup to give Eastern a 71-68 edge.

The Eags then came up with another huge defensive play, as sophomore Carrie Ojeda took a charge from MSU's freshman point guard Ausha Cole to keep Montana State from closing the gap. Eastern went on hit six-of-six attempts from the line in the final minute to secure the payback victory.

"Our posts did a great job of covering down low and tipping balls out," applauded Schuller. "That kind of effort defensively is what gave T [Tatjana Sparavalo] so many open loooks on the other end, and created drive opportunities for [Brianne] Ryan."

Sparavalo finished with a career-high 28 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field. She made five three pointers in the contest - also a career high - and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds. Ryan and Cooper added 15 points apiece, while also combining for seven of Eastern's 14 assists.

Piper finished with seven points and six boards, while Ojeda added three tallies and five rebounds. As a team, the Eagles nabbed 14 steals, which led to 23 points off turnovers for the red and white. Eastern also had a 16-2 edge in made free throws, as the Bobcats made it to the line only three times throughout the 40-minute battle.

Montana State had three players in double figures, led by Bussey, who finished with 18. In Eastern's last meeting with MSU on March 3, sophomore forward Rachel Semansky scored 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting. In the quarterfinal this Thursday, she had just nine points on eight total attempts.

Eastern is now 9-14 all-time in conference tournament games, and 4-6 under Schuller. The Eagles improved their 2010-11 season record to 13-17 with the win against MSU.

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