With a Chance to Gain Some Ground in the Big Sky Standings, Eastern Gears Up for Final Regular-Season Road Trip
Eastern takes on second-place Northern Colorado on Thursday in Greeley, where the Bears boast impressive 10-1 record this season
The Eastern Washington University women’s basketball team is headed out for its final road trip of the 2012-13 regular season, but this particular journey can certainly be considered the toughest one of the year.
The Eagles begin the trip on Thursday (Feb. 28) at Northern Colorado (16-10, 13-4) - the team currently ranked second in the Big Sky Conference with the best home record of the 2012-13 campaign.
EWU will then make the trek to frigid North Dakota (11-16, 6-12) for an early game on Saturday (March 2) in Grand Forks. Eastern and North Dakota will tip off at 10 a.m. Pacific time from the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.
“In our league, you have to be warriors on the road,” said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. “This is definitely a tough road trip, but it is a road trip that everybody has made this year. We know we are facing a lot this weekend, but we are just going to take it head on.”
The Scoop on the Eags
Eastern is coming off two single-game weeks, in which the Eags recorded two wins against Southern Utah and Portland State. Eastern has in fact won eight of its last 10 Big Sky games, averaging 43 percent shooting from the field, 39 percent from three and 80 percent at the free-throw line.
Heading into the final two weeks of the Big Sky regular season, Eastern has five different players averaging nine or more points per game.
“We are anxious to make this trip because it is getting down to the final stretch of conference play,” said Schuller. “I feel like we are playing really good basketball right now. We are coming off a good win against Portland State, and I thought we played well against Southern Utah the week before. We see Northern Colorado as a team that is neck-and-neck with us, and then there is a whole pack of other teams that are right on our tails. ”
Eastern is currently 1 1/2 games behind UNC in the league standings, and two games behind league-leading Montana (13-3). Sacramento State and Idaho State are threatening, just one game back at 10-6, while Montana State is not far behind at 9-7.
The Eagles, along with Montana, UNC, Sac State and most likely ISU and MSU, have all clinched bids to the Big Sky Conference Championship, but positioning for the postseason tourney is still completely up for grabs.
Northern Colorado Preview/Review
Eastern can significantly improve its status in the conference with a win over UNC, as that would give the Eagles a regular-season sweep over the Bears. When the two teams met in Cheney on Jan. 19, Eastern handed Northern Colorado a demoralizing 63-38 loss. The Bears went 0-of-22 from beyond the arc, while shooting just 22.2 percent for the game.
“I expect that if we had played them [UNC] again 40 minutes after our first game, it would have been a completely different-looking game,” said Schuller. “It was just one of those nights. Northern Colorado is a good team. I think D’Shara Strange is as good as they come in our league, and Lauren Oosdyke is strong, tough and plays extremely hard. We know it’s going to be a tough basketball game. There is a reason that teams have not won very often in Greeley.”
In fact, the Bears just suffered their first home loss of the season, when Southern Utah upended UNC in Greeley last Saturday, 73-57. Coming into that game, the Bears were 10-0 at the Butler-Hancock Pavilion. That loss also snapped a nine-game winning streak for Northern Colorado, which had had not lost a game since the blowout in Cheney more than a month ago.
The Bears have had success this year because of efficient shooting and some stifling defense. In league-only statistics, UNC ranks second in scoring defense, third in field goal percentage defense and first in rebounding defense. Northern Colorado’s rebounding margin of +6.9 is among the top 25 in the nation. The Bears are also second to EWU in field goal percentage at 40.1 on the season.
During its nine-game winning streak, the Bears held their opponents to an average of 51 points per game.
As the most efficient shooting team in the conference from the floor and at the free-throw line, the Eagles believe if they can score 65 or more points against the Bears, they’ll come out on top.
North Dakota Preview/Review
The first meeting of the year between EWU and UND was a true 40-minute grind that neither team controlled for any extended period of time. But thanks to 58 percent shooting in the second half, the Eagles were able to overcome an 11-point deficit to narrowly escape with a 75-72 victory on their home floor.
But something to note, Eastern was without two of its main post players in that contest, as junior center Laura Hughes and sophomore forward Melissa Williams were both were out with injuries. Those two players, who both stand at over six-feet, have averaged a combined 13 points and 10 rebounds per game this season, while contributing an average of 19.7 minutes per game. Hughes and Williams, who are both expected to play this weekend in Grand Forks, should help significantly in combating the size and strength of North Dakota.
“North Dakota has great size, so we will have to do a good job of contesting shots and not letting them get easy baskets,” said Schuller. “They have had to acclimate to our league and our style of play, so I expect that they are going to be playing better than when we saw them a month ago.”
North Dakota’s size is certainly evident on the defensive end, as UND is the No. 1 team in the league in 3-point field goal percentage defense, and ranks second in rebounding defense, just behind Northern Colorado. UND has also averaged a league-leading 28.2 defensive boards per game in the 2012-13 conference season.
In its most recent win over Portland State, North Dakota outscored the Vikings in the paint, 30-6.
Eagle News & Notes You Should Know
TOP 40 IN EFFICIENCY: Eastern Washington ranks
among the top 40 in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage and
free throw percentage. The Eagles are No. 1 in the conference in
both categories, while also ranking first in the Big Sky in overall
field goal percentage. EWU is converting 36 percent of its shots
from downtown to 16th among all Division I teams. In league-only
games, EWU is shooting 39 percent from distance. Eastern averages
5.8 3-point field goals per game. Eastern has three different
players who rank in the top eight in the conference in 3-point
field goal percentage, including Hayley Hodgins (4th), Lexie Nelson
(sixth) and Aubrey Ashenfelter (seventh). In the last 10 games,
those three players, plus point guard Kylie Huerta, have combined
for 55 made threes. At the charity stripe, EWU is converting 75
percent of its shots, which ranks 33rd nationally. Again, that
average has been even better in conference play at 78 percent.
OJEDA CLIMBING THE CHARTS: Senior Carrie Ojeda now ranks among the top 10 in EWU history in two different career categories. With two blocks in against NAU on Feb. 7, Ojeda into fifth place on EWU's all-time career blocks list, surpassing Kathleen Nygaard, who had 115 in her four years (2002-04) with the Eagles. Ojeda has 119 total blocks in her tenure - 18 blocks from catching Nicolle Scott in fourth place with 137. Ojeda is fourth among all active players in the Big Sky in that category. Eastern's most recent game against Portland State marked the 113th appearance for Ojeda in her career. She is now tied for 10th on the all-time games played list at EWU. With a guaranteed five more games on the 2012-13 slate, Ojeda will move up to at least fifth place before her career comes to an end, pending she remains healthy for the rest of the season.
CAREER-HIGH COINCIDENCE: Redshirt-freshman Hayley Hodgins has had two 20-point performances this season, and both came against the Vikings of Portland State on the 21st day of the month. Hodgins went 7-of-8 from the field and 7-of-8 at the free throw line against PSU on Feb. 21 for a career-high 24 tallies. In the Jan. 21 meeting with the Vikings in Portland, Hodgins scored 22 points. Since becoming a member of the staring lineup on Jan. 19 against Northern Colorado, Hodgins has averaged 11.3 points and shot 48 percent from beyond the arc.
FREE THROW FRENZY: Sophomore Lexie Nelson converted a career-high 12-of-12 free throws in Eastern's last meeting with Southern Utah (Jan. 26). In doing so, she bettered a 21-year old school record held by Lisa Graber, who made 11-of-11 against Northern Arizona on Feb. 22, 1992. She also tied the all-time Big Sky single-game record of 1.000 percent (with at least 12 attempts), which has been met by 12 different players throughout history. Nelson is No. 1 in the conference in free-throw percentage and among the top 25 in the nation at 86.1 percent on the season.
AFTER ROCK START TO 2013, EAGLES ARE ROLLING: Eastern Washington won five games in a row from Jan. 17 - Jan. 31, and has won eight of its last 10. This hot streak started with the 75-72 win against UND, which was head coach Wendy Schuller’s' 150th victory at Eastern. During this stretch, the Eagles have shot 43 percent from the field and 39 percent from three. In the first five games of 2013, EWU was shooting just 36.8 percent from the floor, and 35.5 percent from three, which resulted in a 1-3 start to the new calendar year.
EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS...AGAIN: In recent years, head coach Wendy Schuller has not earned a lot of respect from her peers in the preseason. Eastern Washington was picked eighth in this year's Big Sky Preseason Coaches’ and Media Poll - a ranking that would leave the Eagles just out of the seven-team postseason tournament. But EWU is certainly familiar with that kind of prediction - and even more 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 an impressive 12-4 league record. Last season, the Eagles were picked seventh again, and ended up finishing third overall. Right now, Eastern is among the top three teams in the league, after starting the year picked in the bottom four.
CHASING/ACHIEVING MILESTONES: This season,
Wendy Schuller won her 150th game as EWU’s head coach - it
came in the 75-72 home win over North Dakota on Jan. 17. That
started a five-game winning streak for the Eagles, who have now won
eight of the last 10 since that day. While she's already reached
one milestone, Schuller has potential to reach another. In her 12
years at the helm, the Eagles have never won 20 games in a season.
They have come close the last couple, with 16 in 2011-12 and 19 in
200-10, but with guaranteed five games left on this year's slate,
if Eastern wins out, Schuller will have her first 20-game season.
Also, in her EWU tenure, the Eagles have advanced to the conference
tournament eight times, but have never played for a championship.
The Eagles have made it through to the semis in five of those eight
trips, but that's the furthest.
PUPS STEP UP: In EWU's 79-70 win over Southern Utah (Jan. 26), the Eagles had eight different players score at least six points - and six of them were underclassmen. Sophomores Lexie Nelson and Kylie Huerta led the way with 21 and 12 points, respectively, while redshirt-freshman Hayley Hodgins chipped in six. But the surprise contributors were freshmen Kayleigh Ryan and Hanna Mack, who both posted a career-high six points on a combined 5-of-8 effort from the floor.
REGARDING ASSIST/TURNOVER RATIO: In games that Eastern has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.8 or higher, the Eagles are 13-2. When the assist-to-turnover ratio is below 0.8, the team is 2-7. EWU is 9-0 this year when committing less turnovers than its opponent, and 9-1 when tallying more assists. On the season, the Eagles rank third out of 11 teams in the conference in assist/turnover ratio at 0.9. In its most recent game (against Portland State), the Eagles had a season-best assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.6 with 18 assists and just five turnovers. The Eagles also had a 25-0 advantage in points off turnovers in that game against the Viks.
HOLD 'EM TO 60/40: In the 2012-13 season, Eastern is 12-2 when holding teams to less than 40 percent shooting from the field, and 9-0 when its opponent scores fewer than 60 points.
VALUE OF VERSATILITY...ON
OFFENSE: Eastern has had seven different players lead the
team in scoring this year. Sophomore Lexie Nelson leads the way
with 10 team-high performances, while Carrie Ojeda, Aubrey
Ashenfelter, Chenise Pakootas, Laura Hughes, Kylie Huerta and
Hayley Hodgins have all led in points at least once. Eastern has
had at least three different players score in double-figures in 12
of the last 16 games for an 12-4 record in those contests.
VALUE OF VERSATILITY...ON DEFENSE: Eastern also shares the wealth defensively, in both rebounding and steals. Seven different players have led in those categories 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 in the 2012-13 campaign.
WILLIAMS HAS WEEKEND TO REMEMBER: EWU came away with two losses on its road trip earlier this year to Northern Arizona and Sac State, but individually, sophomore forward Melissa Williams had the best weekend of her Eagle career. She posted back-to-back double-doubles, averaging 11.5 points (nearly triple her season average) and 11.0 rebounds, while also leading the team in assists with seven. Against the Lumberjacks in Flagstaff, Williams had a career high in both points and rebounds, as she finished with 13 tallies on 4-of-8 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 from the free throw line, and grabbed 11 boards. She also had four assists, one block and one steal. Two days later against the Hornets, she had 10 points and 11 rebounds, to go along with three assists and two steals. But her stellar weekend came to a premature end when she went down with a knee injury in the final six minutes of the Sac State game. Williams suffered a sprained MCL, and had to sit out for two weeks. But the sophomore forward made her return against Southern Utah (Jan. 26), contributing six points and five rebounds.
NOT ONE FOR THE NAIL-BITER: Eastern Washington has not played in an overtime game in more than two years - the last one being a 76-73 loss to Idaho State on Feb. 5, 2011. In fact, 15 of Eastern’s 23 games this year have been decided by double digits. But that's not to say Eastern wouldn't fare well in a nail-biter, because in the nine games this year decided by less than 10 points, EWU is 7-2.
TOUGH SLATE: During the non-conference season, in which Eastern went 4-5, the team 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, and who both have a .520 or better winning percentage at this point in the season. On its 2012-13 schedule, the Eagles have a total of seven opponents that participated in national tournaments a year ago.
GATORADE GIRLS: 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.
WHAT WENDY HAS DONE...
• 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. Behind Montana's Robin Selvig, who has been
with the program for a whopping 35 years, Schuller is the
second-longest tenured coach in the Big Sky in terms of years
coaching in the conference. And the most successful years of those
12 has been the three most recent. In the last three seasons,
Eastern has earned 30 Big Sky Conference wins, which is more than
it had in the previous five seasons combined.
• Her 2009-10 squad captured the school's first-ever Big Sky regular-season title, and hosted the league tournament for the first time in school history. Schuller was named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year after leading the squad to a 12-4 mark in the conference and 19-12 overall, which were the best records posted by an Eagle squad since the 1984-85 season when Eastern was still a member of the Mountain West Conference. That year, the Eagles advanced to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, marking the school’s first national postseason appearance since the 1987 season.
• It should also be noted that in 2009-10 - the year EWU won the Big Sky regular-season title - the Eagles were picked seventh in the preseason coaches' poll. Last year in 2011-12, the Eagles were again picked seventh, and ended up finishing third. And right now, Schuller's 2012-13 team, which was picked eighth in the preseason poll, is currently atop the Big Sky standings with a perfect 3-0 record.
• Schuller has had 13 different players named to one or more All-Big Sky Conference teams, including two league MVPs in Julie Piper (2010) and Brianne Ryan (2012), as well as the school’s first Big Sky Newcomer of the Year, Julie Page, who competed in the 2012 London Olympics as a captain for the Great Britain national team.
• 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, and in 2003-04, the Eagles led the nation with a 3.63 grade point average.
• In the 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. Schuller's teams have in fact won two years in a row at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Mont., which is a milestone in itself considering the Eagles as a program have only recorded four wins there throughout history. Former head coach Bill Smithpeters also won twice in Missoula - once in 1980, and again in 1987 when EWU upset Montana in the championship game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
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 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.