Eagles can still finish in at least a fourth-place tie with win over Grizzlies Saturday
Unlike the Big Sky Conference race, this one didn't come down to the wire.
With its postseason berth secured, but its seeding still up in the air, the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team fell to Montana State 62-46 Thursday (March 3) in a crucial league game for both teams at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern made just 33 percent of its shots in the game, including only 1-of-12 three-point attempts, as the Bobcats out-scored the Eagles 36-20 in the second half. Montana State made 50 percent of its shots in the second half, and overcame a 2-of-16 shooting start to make 20 of its last 40 shots and finish at 39 percent.
Junior Brianne Ryan was the only Eagle in double figures, as she finished with 10 points and five rebounds. Senior Tatjana Sparavalo chipped in eight points and eight rebounds as MSU held Julie Piper and Chene Cooper to a combined eight points. Both averaged in double figures entering the game.
The Big Sky Conference tournament will be held March 10-12 at the site of the regular-season champion, and the six teams competing have already been determined. However, with all six teams -- EWU, MSU, Northern Colorado, Portland State, Montana and Idaho State -- playing games amongst each other this week, final pairings will not be determined until Saturday.
Coupled with Idaho State's 71-51 victory over Weber State Thursday, the Eagles fell into a fifth-place tie with Idaho State in the standings with an 8-7 league record. The Eagles, 12-16 overall, can still finish as high as fourth and as low as sixth, meaning they will play either Portland State, Montana State, Montana or Idaho State in the first round that starts next Thursday (March 10).
Eastern closes the regular season Saturday (March 5) at 2:05 p.m. when EWU battles Montana on Senior Day at Reese Court.
"The tournament is coming up and we want to be playing good basketball heading into it -- we want to be clicking on all cylinders," said Eastern head coach Wendy Schuller. "The way we played tonight was like taking two steps backwards and you don't want to do that during the month of March. What was so disappointing about it was our lack of motivation. This is our home floor and I don't think we protected it with the pride that we should."
Northern Colorado has clinched at least a share of the league title, and is 12-3 in the Big Sky heading into its final game of the season at Idaho State. The Bears need a win to wrap-up the title and host status for the tournament, but if they lose, the Bears would lose the tiebreaker to the winner of the MSU-PSU game.
Montana State, now 11-4 in the league and 17-12, kept alive its hopes of a Big Sky Conference title. A win Saturday over Portland State and an UNC loss would give MSU the title by virtue of a higher Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) than UNC.
Portland State is alive for the title as well, and is also 11-4 after defeating Montana 53-47 Thursday. If the Vikings beat MSU and UNC loses, the Vikings win the title by virtue of a season sweep over MSU.
Montana is now 9-6 and heads to Reese Court with a three-game losing streak after winning its previous six games in a row.
The best the Eagles can finish now is 9-7, meaning a fourth-place tie with Montana or a three-way tie for fourth with UM and ISU. If the Eagles beat Montana and ISU loses to Northern Colorado, Eastern would capture fourth and play fifth-seeded Montana in the first round next Thursday. A loss to the Grizzlies would give EWU sixth place by virtue of ISU season sweep over the Eagles, regardless of how ISU does in its final game. Because of tiebreakers, a three-way tie -- with MSU beating PSU -- would give Montana fourth, ISU fifth and EWU sixth. In a three-way tie with PSU beating MSU, ISU would finish fourth, EWU fifth and Montana sixth.
If EWU finishes sixth, its first round foe will be the loser of the MSU-PSU game.
Thursday's shooting woes against MSU were similar to its meeting one week earlier against the Bobcats. Eastern fell, 70-56 in Bozeman after hitting just 22 percent of its shots in the second half and 28 percent in the game. The Eagles were also out-rebounded 51-40 in the first meeting and 37-28 in the rematch.
"It was pretty similar," Schuller said. "We came out early and were able to score some points. And then we went dry offensively and couldn't knock down shots. It was sort of the same thing last week. I thought they were really precise, executed well offensively and knocked down shots."
For Montana State, Rachel Semansky scored 13 of her 23 points in the first half, and Lyndi Seidensticker had eight of her 14 in the second half. Seidensticker hit four three-pointers for the Bobcats after hitting five with a total of 19 points and nine rebounds in the earlier meeting. Semansky had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds a week ago.
"They always had openings in the post and opportunities to deliver the ball to a shooter," explained Schuller. "I thought they were getting it to people right when they needed to get it to them. I thought we were a step slow and a step late on both ends of the floor. I'm highly disappointed in our effort and our energy tonight. I think we have upperclassmen who didn't step up and didn't do the things we need to do to be successful. This is their time of year and we can't have performances like that -- especially not from them."
The Eagles started the game well defensively, allowing MSU to make just two of its first 16 shots. Eastern took a 15-6 lead with 10:53 left on a basket by Carrie Ojeda, but MSU started a 13-4 run with a three-point play and knotted the game at 19. The Bobcats took their first lead of the game late in the half, and the game was tied at 26 at intermission.
The Bobcats rallied from their poor shooting start to make seven of their last 14 shots and finish the half at 30 percent, as Rachel Semansky scored 13 of MSU's points. Eastern made 11-of-28 shots for 39 percent.
But the Eagles went the first 4:08 of the second half without scoring, and MSU scored the first seven points to take a 33-26 edge. The Bobcats then hit three-straight treys -- including a pair by Seidensticker -- to take a 46-32 lead with 12:57 to play.
Eastern could come no closer than 11 the rest of the way, as MSU led by as many a 17 in the second half.
Among the four players who will be honored Saturday will be four-year letter winners Kyla Evans, Piper and Sparavalo, as well as injured player Jessica Thielen.
As freshmen, the senior class was just 4-25 overall and 1-5 in the league. But last season, Eastern won the regular-season title with a 12-4 record in the Big Sky, and hosted the conference tournament for the first time in school history. Unfortunately, Montana State dashed Eastern's hopes for an NCAA bid, as the Bobcats knocked EWU out of the tourney in the semifinal round.
Just last weekend, Eastern spoiled Montana's own senior day when it defeated the Lady Griz, 71-63 in Missoula. That victory snapped a 27-game and 24-year losing streak for EWU in Missoula. The 2011 Eags became just the third team in school history to win on Montana's home floor. The last team to do it was the 1987 squad, which upset the Lady Griz, 77-74, in the championship game of the Big Sky tournament.
The Grizzlies are 14-14 overall after Thursday's loss.
"Montana is a good team and will be out for some revenge because of last Saturday," Schuller said. "If we don't play harder, a step quicker and with a little more energy and enthusiasm, it will be a similar outcome. Between now and then, we'll do everything we can to prepare. Hopefully more than anything our team will step up, and understand this is the last chance for our seniors to play on this court. If anything else, play hard for them. We'll see how we respond."