After 12 days off from competition, Eastern eager to get back on the court, where it aims for ninth-consecutive win over Wildcats and first in two years against defending Big Sky champion Bengals
For the first time in head coach Wendy Schuller’s 12-year tenure, the Eastern Washington University women’s basketball team will begin its Big Sky Conference slate before Christmas break. With 11 teams now in the league, and 20 conference games, the Eagles must make an early debut - and this year, that debut is on the road.
Eastern plays Weber State on Thursday (Dec. 20) at the Dee Events Center in Ogden, Utah, where EWU has won four-straight. But on Saturday (Dec. 22), the Eags take on defending Big Sky regular-season and tournament champion Idaho State in Pocatello, which is a road game Eastern has not been able to win in nearly a decade. Both games this week are scheduled to tip off at 11 a.m. Pacific time.
“It’s definitely different for us,” said Schuller, on starting conference play before Christmas. “We always used to view that point up until Christmas as our prep phase. So, to throw those two league games in - and pretty important ones at that - is certainly different.”
“The biggest concern with it is our focus,” added Schuller. “Players haven’t been home in three and a half months, they’re now done with finals, and their minds are just on going home. But hopefully, we have enough upperclassmen who have the experience and who understand how to combat that. It is time. Regardless of the circumstances, we have to show up every single game. We have to scratch and claw for every win, and play our tails off for 20 games.”
The conference opener on Thursday at Weber State will be Eastern’s first contest in nearly two weeks. The Eagles played Boise State on Dec. 7, before a 12-day hiatus which included finals week. But in that last game in Boise, four different Eagles scored in double-figures, and EWU held the Broncos to 35.6 percent shooting on their home floor. EWU hit nine 3-pointers en route to a 74-63 win on the road.
“This long layoff isn’t great,” said Schuller. “That is also part of what’s tough with the number of conference games we have this year. It was a little bit of a scheduling nightmare. But it did give us a chance to just take our time and focus on specific things. It also gave us a chance to nurse some kids back to health in a way.”
“I feel pretty good about where we are,” added Schuller. “There are still things we are going to be constantly tinkering with and refining, probably all the way up until the end of January. But our performance in Boise was definitely encouraging. I like that we are learning to score and learning to play together, both offensively and defensively. It was encouraging to see us go in to someone’s gym and shoot the ball well, especially since we open conference play on the road.”
Weber State, which has 11 newcomers on its 2012-13 roster, comes with a 0-9 record on the year. The Wildcats are last in the conference in both scoring offense and scoring defense. As a result of shooting below 30 percent from the field this season, WSU has scored an average of just 52.1 points per game, while allowing opponents 76.6 points per game. The Wildcats are third in the league in steals though, and rank second in offensive rebounds.
“Weber State is a lot of unknown,” said Schuller. “They are really young, and I’m sure they are still working to figure each other out and learning a new system. But from the little bit I have seem of them, they are quick and athletic and have kids that know how to make plays. We will have to be solid defensively, and offensively, we’ll have to be able to handle the pressure they will put on us.”
Idaho State owns a 5-3 record on the year, but its three losses were against schools from a few power conferences in the Midwest. The Bengals lost to Kansas State and Kansas during the first weekend of the 2012-13 season, and dropped a contest to Nebraska of the Big 10 at the beginning of this month. Idaho State has defeated Air Force, Boise State, South Dakota and most recently, Utah Valley and Carroll College.
The Bengals lost only one starter from last year’s Big Sky Championship team, and among the four other returning starters, two were All-Big Sky selections.
Just as they did in 2011-12, the Bengals currently lead the league in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, holding teams to just 56 points per game on 34 percent shooting.
“This game is going to be a grind,” said Schuller. “That’s the best word I can think of to describe a game against Idaho State. Defensively, they stand you up on every cut, and just scratch and claw and fight on that end of the floor. They like to keep their opponents in the 40s and 50s, which is not my style of basketball in particular, but it is a style that has very effective for them.”
OTHER GAME NOTES
*Eastern has won eight-consecutive games against Weber State, including four in a row in Ogden. But the all-time series between the two teams stands at 40-24, in favor of WSU. Eastern won both meetings in 2011-12 by double-digits.
*Conversely, Eastern has only defeated Idaho State once in the last eight seasons, and has not won in Pocatello since March 1, 2003. The all-time series between the two teams is near even at 32-28, with ISU holding the slight advantage.
*Under Schuller, the Eagles are 9-2 in their Big Sky Conference openers.
Fast Look at the [Probable] Starting Five
#13 | LEXIE NELSON (GUARD)
• Nelson has scored in double figures in seven of eight
games this year, including two games with 20 or more points. In the
last three games, she has shot 54 percent from the field, and 50
percent from three. She has hit three 3-pointers in three-straight
games, and four times overall this year.
• Averaging 15.4 points per game, Nelson is currently Eastern’s leading scorer, while ranking second in the Big Sky. She also ranks among the top five in the league in 3-point field goals and free throw percentage and is ninth in minutes played.
• Nelson has earned a trip to the free throw line 44 times this season, which accounts for nearly half of the entire team’s total free-throw attempts on the year.
• A transfer from Big Sky rival Montana, Nelson sat out the 2011-12 season due to NCAA transfer rules. As a freshman with the Lady Griz, Nelson played in 32 of 33 games, including three postseason contests. Coincidentally, Nelson had her best offensive performance of the year in a regular-season game against Eastern Washington, scoring 14 points for UM.
#21 | CARRIE OJEDA (CENTER)
• Averaging a team-leading 9.3 rebounds per game, Ojeda
ranks among the top three in the Big Sky and top 80 nationally. She
posted a career-high 17 boards in the season debut against Pacific
(Nov. 11), and 11 in Eastern’s most recent win at Boise
State. She has had at least five boards in her five other
appearances this year.
• After leading the league in 2011-12 with a 1.7 blocks per game average, Ojeda has tallied 10 already this year, including her 100th-career block. Ojeda ranks seventh in the EWU all-time career record book in that category, now with 103, which is second among all active players in the Big Sky. She says shot blocking is her favorite part of the game.
• Including three already this season - the second-most of any player in the Big Sky - Ojeda has posted nine double-doubles throughout her career.
#30 | CHENISE PAKOOTAS (GUARD)
• Pakootas has had at least one steal in seven of eight
games this year, and has had a career-high four steals on two
different occasions. She is leading the Eagles with a 2.1 steals
per game average, which ranks seventh in the Big Sky.
• After averaging 13.6 minutes as a sophomore, Pakootas has more than doubled her minutes this season, averaging 27.6 now as a starter for the Eagles.
• Pakootas was the most efficient 3-point shooter in the Big Sky Conference in 2011-12, converting 40 percent of her long-range shots. She is currently averaging 1.1 3-pointers per game. She hit a career-high four against the nationally-ranked California Golden Bears.
#32 | AUBREY ASHENFELTER (GUARD)
• With 1,421 minutes played thus far in her career,
Ashenfelter is the second-most experienced player on the team. She
appeared in all 31 games as a true freshman in 2010-11 and started
29 of 30 last year. But her responsibilities have changed this
year, from a role player to an aggressive, more consistent
• Ashenfelter has scored in double figures in back-to-back games, with 13 points against Gonzaga (Dec. 4) and 16 in a win at Boise State (Dec. 7). She earned her first-career double-double earlier this year in a win over Portland (Nov. 18), with 11 points and 10 rebounds. She followed that career-performance with a 12-point effort against nationally-ranked Cal on Nov. 23.
• Ashenfelter is a two-time Big Sky All-Academic honoree.
#42 | MELISSA WILLIAMS (FORWARD)
• After posting a season-high nine rebounds on two
different occasions in 2011-12, Williams has posted a new a
career-high of 10 boards twice already this year. She is the
second-leading rebounder on the team this year, averaging 5.3 per
• Williams was one of only two true freshmen in the Big Sky to start every game of the 2011-12 season.
• As a rookie in 2011-12, Williams had at least five rebounds in 11 of 16 conference games, and improved her shooting efficiency from 39 percent in the non-conference season to 46 percent in league play.
First Four off the Bench
#4 | KYLIE HUERTA (POINT GUARD)
• After scoring a combined 10 points in the first five
games of the year, Huerta has put up 13 in the last three games
combined. She has also averaged four assists per game in the last
three outings, including a career-high seven assists, seven points
and seven rebounds at Idaho on Nov. 27.
• Huerta is a 2011 graduate of Kentwood High School in Kent, Wash., which is the same school that produced Gonzaga legend and current WNBA star Courtney Vandersloot, as well as Nebraska four-year starter Lindsey Moore, who is a 2013 preseason Wade List and Naismith Trophy candidate…Huerta was the direct successor of these two nationally-acclaimed point guards…Kentwood is also the alma-mater of EWU men’s basketball great, Rodney Stuckey.
#12 | HANNA MACK (CENTER)
• A true freshman, Mack has appeared in all eight games for
EWU, including one start against nationally-ranked California. She
averages 7.8 minutes per game.
• Mack was a four-year varsity letterwinner at Marist High School in Eugene, Ore., and standing at 6-foot-4, she is the tallest player signed by Schuller in more than five years.
#25 | HAYLEY HODGINS (GUARD)
• Coming off her redshirt-freshman year, Hodgins has played
in seven of eight games for EWU this year, averaging 3.1 points and
1.4 rebounds per game.
• She has hit at least one 3-pointer in six of eight games, and has had two in three separate outings.
• A 2011 graduate of Chiawana High School in Pasco, Wash., Hodgins was a two-time Columbia Basin Big Nine Cascade Division First-Team selection and was honored on the Seattle Time All-State Second Team.
#54 | LAURA HUGHES (CENTER)
• Hughes started the first two games of the year for
Eastern, but has come off the bench in the last six. She averages
17.9 minutes per game.
• The 6-2 junior center is currently the fourth-leading scorer on the team, averaging 7.0 points per game. She has scored in double figures in three outings this year, including a career-high 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting in a narrow loss to Idaho on Nov. 27.
Eagle News & Notes
• Eastern may not score as many points as other Big Sky
teams, as it currently ranks eighth in scoring offense with an
average of 57.6 points per game, but its overall field goal
percentage is one of the top five in the league. Eastern has shot
40 percent or better in five of its last six outings. On the year,
EWU is making 39.1 percent of its shots from the field, and almost
33 percent from beyond the arc, which is the second-best average in
the Big Sky. Eastern’s most dangerous threats on the
perimeter in terms of efficiency are junior guard Aubrey
Ashenfelter and sophomore guard Lexie Nelson, who currently rank
fifth and sixth in the league, respectively.
• Eastern has had five different players lead the team in scoring this year. Sophomore Lexie Nelson has had five team-high performances, while senior Carrie Ojeda and juniors Aubrey Ashenfelter, Chenise Pakootas and Laura Hughes have all led in points at least once. While they do have versatility in scoring, the Eagles are still looking for one or two more players who can produce big numbers on a consistent basis. Nelson is the only Eagle currently averaging double digits at 15.4 points per game. No other player on the team has been able to string together more than two games in a row in double figures.
• Eastern is also a versatile rebounding team, as six different players have led on the glass at least once this year. Senior Carrie Ojeda, juniors Aubrey Ashenfelter and Laura Hughes, and sophomore Melissa Williams have each posted at least one double-digit rebounding effort already this year.
• Eastern scored 74 points in its most recent outing at Boise State, which is nearly 20 points more than what it had been averaging in the first seven games of the year. Ball distribution was a big part of that, as four different players scored in double figures - the first time that’s happened all season.
• The Eagles may not boast a winning record heading into Big Sky play, but that may be attributed to a challenging pre-conference slate. Eastern has already played two opponents (Cal, Gonzaga) who were either ranked or receiving votes in the USA Today Sports Coaches Top 25 Poll. EWU opened the year against Pacific and Cal State Northridge - the two teams picked to finish at the top of the Big West Conference this year. On its 2012-13 schedule, the Eagles have a total of seven opponents that articipated in national tournaments a year ago.
• Sophomore Lexie Nelson poured in career-high 23 points on
a 7-of-12 performance from the floor to lead Eastern to a 68-50
rout of Portland (Nov. 18) - its first win of the 2012-13 season.
Nelson drained three 3-pointers and made 6-of-7 from the charity
stripe. All this came in the midst of suffering a bloody nose
midway through the game. She had 20 points in Eastern’s most
recent win at Boise State, where she made 7-of-13 from the field,
3-of-6 from long range and 3-of-3 from the free-throw line. She
also had five rebounds and three assists against BSU. Nelson has
scored at least 15 points in four-straight games, and has had three
3-pointers in three-straight games.
• Sophomore Kylie Huerta had a stellar performance against former and future Big Sky member, Idaho. Coming off the bench, she contributed seven points, seven rebounds and six assists - all of which were career highs for the 5-1 point guard. In the most recent game at Boise State, Huerta contributed six points, five assists and three steals.
• Junior Laura Hughes had a career-night in Eastern’s road game at Idaho on Nov. 27. The 6-2 center made 8-of-12 shots from the floor and went a perfect 4-of-4 from the line for a career-high and team-leading 20 points. She also led EWU on the glass with nine rebounds, and contributed a steal. She had 16 points in the second half, which helped EWU overcome a 12-point halftime deficit and take a lead with five minutes remaining in the game.
• Junior Aubrey Ashenfelter had an impressive stat line in Eastern’s first win against Portland (Nov. 18). The 6-0 guard posted her first-career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, but she also tied her career-high in assists with six, and tallied two steals and one block. Ashenfelter was 5-of-8 against the Pilots, after going just 4-of-17 in the first two outings of 2012-13. In the very next game against nationally-ranked California, Ashenfelter made 5-of-11 shots, including two 3-pointers, for a team-leading 12 points, to go along with four assists, three rebounds and two steals. But her season-high scoring mark came in the most recent outing at Boise State (Dec. 7), where she scored 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting.
• Senior Carrie Ojeda hauled in a career-high 17 rebounds in the 2012-13 season debut against Pacific (Nov. 11). She also added 14 points for her first double-double of the year, and the seventh in her career. Ojeda had 10 defensive rebounds and seven on the offensive glass to lead all players in the game by at least seven. She also led Eastern in assists (4) and blocked shots (4) in that game. Ojeda notched her second double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds in a 50-45 win over Cal State Fullerton (Nov. 24).
• This year, Eastern Washington boasts not one, but two
Gatorade Players of the Year on its roster. A product of Butte
(Mont.) High School, sophomore Lexie Nelson was the Gatorade Player
of the Year for Montana in 2010, while freshman Tisha Phillips, a
graduate of Lewiston (Idaho) High School, earned the honor for
Idaho in 2012. Nelson was a four-time Class AA All-State selection,
and led her team to back-to-back runner-up finishes in the Montana
State Championships. Phillips was a two-time First-Team All-State
selection, and won two Idaho 5A state titles with the Bengals.
Preseason Talking Points
• Eastern won their lone exhibition game on Nov. 4 against
the NAIA’s Carroll College. EWU out-scored the Saints by 22
in the second half to roll to a 65-38 victory. Nine different
Eagles contributed points in the game, led by sophomore Lexie
Nelson, who poured in 19.
• Eastern returns three starters and six other letterwinners, as well as three redshirts and four newcomers. But for the first time in three years, the Eagles will not welcome back an All-Big Sky player. Following the 2011-12 season, Eastern graduated two-time unanimous first-team selection and 2012 Big Sky MVP Brianne Ryan, as well as second-team honoree Chene Cooper, who accounted for nearly 50 percent of the Eagle scoring a year ago.
• Eastern Washington was picked eighth in the 2012-13 Big Sky Preseason Coaches’ and Media Poll - a ranking that would leave Eastern just out of the seven-team postseason tournament. But Eastern is certainly familiar with that kind of prediction - and familiar with proving it wrong. Prior to the 2009-10 season, the Eagles were selected seventh by both the coaches and media. That year, EWU went on to win the school’s first-ever Big Sky regular-season title with a 12-4 league record. Last season, the Eagles were picked seventh again, and ended up finishing third overall after a 10-6 run in conference play.
• Eastern is coming off one of its best seasons ever in the Big Sky Conference. With a 10-6 record in 2011-12, EWU took third in the league race - its second-best effort in more than two decades. The only better finish since 1987-88, when the Big Sky started sponsoring women’s sports, came two years prior in 2009-10, when the Eagles won the school’s first-ever regular-season title with a 12-4 league record.
• Over the last three years, Eastern has earned 30 Big Sky Conference wins, which is more than it had in the previous five seasons combined.
• In the past 10 seasons, Eastern Washington women’s basketball players have been honored 88 times on the Big Sky All-Academic list, which is the most for any women’s basketball team in the league. The Eagles have also been recognized on the WBCA Academic Top 25 Honor Roll for 10 of the past 11 seasons.
• Eastern has advanced to the Big Sky Conference tournament in eight of Schuller’s 11 years as head coach, including the last three in a row. In the most recent 2011-12 season, Schuller led the Eagles to a first-ever sweep of the Montana road trip in school history. The back-to-back wins at Montana (Jan. 26) and Montana State (Jan. 28) were two of Eastern’s six total road wins in the Big Sky season - which tied another school record.