March 5, 2011

Montana Gains Measure of Revenge With 66-60 Win Over Eagles

Eastern finishes sixth in conference and plays Montana State Thursday in quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Portland

Turnaround is fair play.

The Eastern Washington University women's basketball team had its own Senior Day spoiled by Montana Saturday (March 5), as the Lady Griz beat EWU 66-60 in the Big Sky Conference regular season finale for both teams at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

The Eagles finish as the sixth seed among the six teams in the 2011 Big Sky Conference Tournament, which will be held March 10-12 at the site of regular-season champion Portland State. Eastern, now 12-17 overall and 8-8 in the league, will play in the quarterfinal round on March 10.

The Grizzlies, who finished 10-6 in league play and are 15-14 overall, will play Idaho State (9-7, 18-11) in the quarterfinals. The winners of the quarterfinals will play Northern Colorado (12-4, 17-12) and Portland State (12-4, 19-10) in the semis on March 11, with the championship game slated for Saturday, March 12 at 2 p.m. Pacific time, and televised live by Altitude Sports and Entertainment.

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.

In the rematch, junior Brianne Ryan scored 22 points for the Eagles and senior Tatjana Sparavalo finished with 12 points and six rebounds. Senior Julie Piper added eight points and a season-high 15 rebounds. Eastern's other senior, Kyla Evans, finished with three points, an assist and a steal in just 19 minutes on the floor.

Piper was just 2-of-10 from the field and junior point guard Chene Cooper made just 2-of-12.

"We have to shoot better than we did -- especially Piper and Cooper," said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. "We rely on them to get a lot of shots for us and we need to do better than 4-of-22 between those players. They are capable of doing a lot for us. I don't think it's by any means lack of effort. I just think it's not knocking shots down. We have five or six days to take a look at things, get some legs underneath us and get some shots off. Then we'll head to Portland and hopefully shoot the ball better than 32 percent."

Although they had a 40-34 rebounding advantage, the Eagles couldn't overcome another poor shooting night. Eastern made only 27 percent in the first half and trailed by nine at intermission. For the game, Eastern made only 32 percent of its shots. Besides the combined 12-of-25 performance by Ryan and Sparavalo, the rest of the team was just 8-of-37 for 22 percent.

In a 70-56 loss two days earlier versus Montana State, Eastern made 33 percent of its shots in the game, including only 1-of-12 three-point attempts.

Eastern's shooting was its season-long weakness, as the Eags enter the postseason having made only 38.7 percent of its shots from the field. That led to four less conference wins than a year ago for EWU.

"We are actually disappointed in it," said Schuller of her team's final 8-8 league mark. "We thought this was a team that could have won at least 10 or 11 Big Sky games. Offensively, we just had some bad performances as a collective group. That put us in a bad position to win, and today was another example of that."

The Eagles also made only 14-of-22 free throws for 64 percent, compared to 17-of-22 for the Grizzlies. Eastern made only nine of 16 shots from the charity stripe in the second half.

"Maybe if we go 18-of-22 at the line, the outcome down the stretch is a little different," said Schuller. "Maybe it's a game that comes down to the last shot or so."

Eastern jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead against the Grizzlies, and led 13-4 at the 14:14 mark. But over the next nine minutes, Montana out-scored the Eagles 24-7 to take an eight-point advantage with 5:03 remaining in the half. The Grizzlies eventually led by as many as 11 before settling for a 36-27 halftime advantage.

The Eagles cut into the Montana lead on back-to-back baskets by Ryan, but Montana responded with an 8-0 run to re-assume command of the game. Eastern went 3 1/2 minutes without scoring and eventually went 4:42 without a field goal in that decisive stretch.

Montana's lead ballooned to 10 points before the Eagles cut it to 56-52 with 4:04 to play on a pair of free throws by Ryan. Montana responded with a three-pointer by Katie Baker, then Ryan hit a basket at the 1:15 mark to cut the lead to three again. But Baker put the game away with a rebound basket with 40 seconds left, followed by two made free throws with 25 ticks remaining on the clock.

Baker led the Grizzlies with 18 points and seven rebounds, and Jordan Sullivan added 12 points for the Lady Griz. No Montana starter scored in double figures, but its bench out-scored EWU's 40-7.

Northern Colorado entered Saturday's action having clinched at least a share of the league title, but lost 69-61 at Idaho State to open the door for the winner of the Portland State-Montana State game. The Vikings won that game 65-63, and thanks to a tiebreaker advantage over UNC, earned host status for the tournament.  The Vikings won the tiebreaker over Northern Colorado by virtue of a season sweep over MSU.

"The main thing is that it's a little bit easier travel situation for us and we will have more fans in Portland than if it would have been in Bozeman or Greeley," said Schuller. "It's a gym where you have the ability to shoot the ball well -- it's a good shooter's gym. I think Portland State will do a good job hosting the tournament."

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