Eastern wins five-straight, while extending perfect Big Sky road record to 6-0
In front of a sold out crowd at The Nest in Sacramento, Calif., the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team overcame the obstacles to beat the Hornets of Sac State, 90-84, on Saturday (Feb. 4) in another important Big Sky Conference showdown.
With the win, EWU earned its second-consecutive regular-season sweep against Sac State, and extended its perfect 2011-12 Big Sky road record to 6-0. The Eagles have now tied the EWU school record for the most league road wins in a single season.
Eastern (15-9, 9-2) remains in second place in the Big Sky standings, but in winning its fifth-consecutive conference game, the Eagles closed the gap considerably on league-leader, Idaho State (16-6, 8-1). EWU and ISU will not meet until the final two weeks of the season, as Eastern hosts the Bengals at Reese Court on Feb. 25, and then plays in Pocatello on March 3.
The win on Saturday did not come easy, but behind the stellar efforts of its senior leaders, the Eagles found a way to prevail. Eastern was playing in front of the second-largest women's basketball crowd in Sac State history, which made the win that much more exciting for the red and white.
"We knew this was going to be a close game," said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. "Sac played extremely well. They knocked down shots, and really had us on our heels for much of the game. But we came up with some big plays when we needed them, and our seniors stepped up and did what seniors are supposed to do."
The game featured 10 ties and 14 lead changes. With just over eight minutes remaining in the second half, EWU junior Courtney Nolen hit a jumper to give Eastern its biggest lead of the afternoon at 71-62. But over the next two and half minutes, Sac State rallied behind the 1,117 screaming fans and scored 10 unanswered points to take a 72-71 lead.
The teams then traded baskets for the next four minutes, with no one creating any real separation. With 1:45 left on the game clock, Sac State's senior forward Emily Christensen converted a layup which pulled her team within one at 80-79. With the momentum heading in the wrong direction, Schuller called a timeout to refocus her squad.
"We knew this next possession was going to be huge, so we called a timeout to draw up a play," said Schuller. "When the clock started, Sac State just collapsed on our posts. There was nothing to do down low, so we kicked it and Coop was wide open on the perimeter."
Cooper, who had hit all three of her previous attempts from downtown, buried the clutch 3-pointer, giving her team a four-point edge with just over a minute to play.
"Coop had spent a lot of time in the gym the past couple weeks working on her shot," said Schuller. "And man, she hit a big one for us tonight."
Following Cooper's three, Sac State came down a scored immediately, but on Eastern's next possession, Cooper dished a ball inside to fellow senior Brianne Ryan, who finished it off the glass to put the Eags back up by four. Ryan then went on to make 4-of-4 free throws in the final 16 seconds, while Cooper also hit 1-of-2 to seal the deal for EWU.
"This was a tough game on the road," said Schuller. "But we knew that coming in, and in order to win championships, you have to be able to eek out these close ones."
This season, Eastern has only played in four games decided by six points or less. They are 2-2 in those contests.
Eastern shot 60 percent (9-of-15) from beyond the arc against the Hornets, which marked its second-best 3-point percentage of the year, and best of the Big Sky season. Along with Cooper's perfect 4-of-4 effort, sophomore Aubrey Ashenfelter hit three 3's, while Ryan added two.
The Eagles also tied their season-high in rebounds with 51. The first time EWU grabbed 51 boards this season was also against Sac State when the two teams met in Cheney on Jan. 12.
Eastern got the free-throw line 26 times in Saturday's game, compared to just 15 for Sac. EWU converted 21 of those 26 attempts, while the Hornets hit just 6-of-15.
Along with the contributions from Cooper and Ryan, junior Carrie Ojeda had a major impact with her fifth double-double of the season. The 6-1 center finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, as well as three blocks, two assists and one steal.
"Carrie was just really solid," complimented Schuller. "She was all over the place, rebounding well and giving us a presence in the post. She also made some big free throws at the end. Our whole team did a great job knocking down free throws when we needed to."
Ryan led the Eagles offensively with 26 points. She was one rebound shy of a double-double, as she finished with nine boards, to go along with three assists and one steal.
Cooper tallied a season-high 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and had seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.
Ashenfelter chipped in 13 points for EWU, while three other players had four. One of whom was freshman Melissa Williams, who also grabbed a season-high nine rebounds.
Eastern will return to Cheney for its next Big Sky Conference matchup, as it takes on Weber State next Thursday (Feb. 9) at 6:05 p.m. on Reese Court. The Eagles will have just one game a week for the next two weeks, as it then travels to Northern Colorado the following Thursday (Feb. 16).