Eastern Kirk Earlywine refused to disclose what it was that made him keep Laron Griffin on the bench throughout the first half of Eastern Washington’s Big Sky Conference opener against Sacramento State at Reese Court on Wednesday night.
But if it was, indeed, Earlywine’s way of sending some kind of message to the junior forward, it seemed to work as Griffin came on after intermission to score 12 points and make several key defensive plays as the Eagles turned back the Hornets 88-79 in overtime.
Along with Griffin’s second-half heroics, Eastern (4-8 overall, 1-0 in the Big Sky) also got a career-high 22 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots from Cliff Ederaine, along with 21 points from Jeffrey Forbes.
The Eagles, after spitting away a 12-point first-half lead, used an inspired defensive stand on Sac State’s last possession in regulation to keep the score tied at 77 and force overtime.
And when Griffin, a 6-foot-8, 220-pounder, scored the first four points in the extra period and then took a charging foul that resulted in another turnover by the Hornets (3-9, 0-1) the issue was pretty much decided.
“Laron did a good job in the second half,” said Earlywine, the Eagles’ fourth-year head coach, who attributed Griffin’s absence in the first half to a coach’s decision. “Big Cliff (Enderaine) did a good job in the first half, and we certainly needed those points in the paint.
“I did not foresee Cliff Colimon and Glen Dean going 0-for-9 from the (3-point) arc, so it was even more important tonight.”
Dean, the Eagles’ sophomore point guard, who finished with 11 points, missed all five of his 3-point tries and Colimon, a junior guard and first-year transfer missed his four.
Eastern shot only 18.8 percent (3-16) from long range, while Sac State, which got a team-high 19 points from Zach Nelson, made only five of 17 3-point tries.
Still, the perimeter shooting on this night was not nearly as ugly as the foul count, which reached a combined 64 by game’s ends and resulted in 86 free throws being attempted. Eastern ended up missing 16 of its 45 fouls shots, but got enough production from its front line to salvage an important home win.
When asked about Ederaine’s improvement since the start of the season, Earlywine said it has been a matter of the slightly built first-year junior college transfer learning to play harder longer.
“He’s never played as hard for as long as he has to at this level,” Earlywine said of the 6-7, 205-pounder. “And for all high school and juco guys, there’s a learning curve.
“And Cliff is also learning how to score the ball in the paint in Division I.”
Of Griffin’s second-half contributions, Earlywine added, “I thought he came in and scored the ball in there in the second half. And on a couple of balls he didn’t score, I thought he got hit and they were fouls.”
Eastern plays at home again on Friday in a 3 p.m. Big Sky matchup against Northern Colorado (5-7, 1-0) a 79-66 winner over Portland State, and Earlywine stressed how important Wednesday night’s win was.
“In league play, you have to protect home court,” he said. “And each time you win, it just cranks up the intensity level and importance of the next one.”