Coach Kirk Earlywine said earlier in the week that he thought his Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team, which added a pair of new players in early December, was starting to get a little more comfortable with its beefed-up roster and more varied lineup options.
His changed his opinion rather dramatically Wednesday night after watching Big Sky Conference rival Montana dismantle his Eagles 63-50 in front of a Reese Court crowd of 2,280.
“I was wrong,” Earlywine said, without hesitation.
The Grizzlies (10-9 overall, 4-3 in the Big Sky), who came in with a grisly 1-8 road record, took advantage of Eastern’s cold shooting and early defensive indifference to race to a 36-21 halftime lead and coasted home from there behind the 21-point scoring outburst of junior guard Anthony Johnson, who proved nearly unstoppable in transition.
Montana led by as much as 57-32 with a little more than 8 minutes left before Eastern closed with an 18-6 run that made the final score deceivingly respectable.
The Eagles (9-10, 3-4) reeled off 15 unanswered points during one stretch of those final 8 minutes. EWU closed to within 57-47 before the Grizzlies – whose last field goal came with 8:22 on the clock – finished things off by knocking down six free throws in the final 90 seconds.
Still, little of what was accomplished down the stretch mattered to Earlywine, who felt his team took a giant step backward in making just 20 of 64 field goals and failing to establish any offensive consistency on the low post.
“I’m struggling right now, in the moment, to put my finger on it,” Earlywine said in reference to the struggles his Eagles have endured since Adris DeLeon and Chris Busch, a pair of projected preseason starters, became eligible at the end of the first academic quarter.
“The one thing I’m certain of is that you can’t shoot 31 percent, be 2 of 28 from the (3-point) arc and 50 percent from the free-throw line and win very many games.”
Junior guard and Big Sky scoring leader Benny Valentine finished with 15 points for Eastern, which also got 14 points – but only one rebound – from junior forward Mark Dunn.
Senior guard Gary Gibson fueled the Eagles’ late surge with some terrific defense on the point.
But Earlywine was quick to note that his team took 18 first-half shots from within 6 feet of the basket and made only six. Those misses led to a lot of easy points for the Grizzlies.
“Our shots we were getting in the paint that we kept missing were, in essence, outlet passes for them,” he said. “We’re missing shot after shot after shot in the paint, and they’re running it at us in transition, and Johnson is a load in transition.
“He’s extraordinarily quick and fast, and puts a ton of pressure on defenses. But he doesn’t do that if they’re taking the ball out of the net.”
Eastern’s first-half performance, which included 28.1 percent shooting (9 for 32) from the field, left the Eagles staring at a 36-21 deficit that proved to be as insurmountable as it seemed at the time.
Dunn finished the period with 12 points – three of which came on his second 3-pointer of the season – and Valentine added seven.
But only one other Eastern player – Andy Genao, who managed a bucket almost 161/2 minutes into the game – scored prior to intermission, leaving Earlywine with little in the way of offensive options.
Gibson, who finished with seven points and three late steals, was the key to EWU’s late comeback, was also upset by his teammates’ lack of ability to score inside.
“It’s frustrating when you get in that close to the rim and miss easy shots like that,” he said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the defense, because you feel like you’ve got to make stop every time down.”
Eastern plays again at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at Big Sky-leading Portland State.
Montana 63,EWU 50
Montana (10-9, 4-3)—Hasquet 2-7 0-2 6, McGillis 1-6 0-0 2, Sharp 3-7 0-0 6, Staudacher 3-4 0-0 9, Johnson 9-16 2-3 21, Taylor 1-2 2-2 5, Stockton 0-0 2-2 2, Selvig 1-2 0-0 2, Qvale 3-5 4-6 10. Totals 23-49 10-15 63.
Eastern Washington (9-10, 3-4)—Genao 1-3 0-0 2, Dunn 5-11 3-3 14, Moore 2-7 0-0 4, Valentine 5-17 4-6 15, Stanojevic 0-6 0-0 0, Busch 2-4 0-0 4, DeLeon 0-3 0-0 0, Christensen 1-2 0-0 2, Gibson 3-8 1-2 7, Brunell 1-3 0-3 2. Totals 20-64 8-14 50.
Halftime—Montana 36, Eastern Washington 21. 3-Point Goals—Montana 7-15 (Staudacher 3-4, Hasquet 2-4, Johnson 1-2, Taylor 1-2, Sharp 0-1, McGillis 0-2), Eastern Washington 2-18 (Dunn 1-3, Valentine 1-5, Brunell 0-1, Gibson 0-2, Busch 0-2, Stanojevic 0-5). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Montana 41 (Qvale 9), Eastern Washington 32 (Brunell, Moore 6). Assists—Montana 14 (Johnson, Staudacher, Taylor 3), Eastern Washington 11 (Gibson, Valentine 4). Total Fouls—Montana 13, Eastern Washington 16. A—2,280.