Yes, last Sunday’s rare road win over Montana State still counts.
But any cloud of euphoria it might have created over Eastern Washington University’s men’s basketball program was blown away Friday night when the Eagles kicked away a five-point lead in the final 2 minutes to hand Northern Arizona University a 73-69 Big Sky Conference victory in front of a Reese Court crowd of 1,342.
Eastern (6-12, 2-3 Big Sky), playing at home for only the second time in a month, seemed poised to put the Lumberjacks (8-9, 2-4) away when senior center Brandon Moore hit the first of two free throws to give the Eagles a 67-62 lead with just more than 3 minutes remaining.
But a minute later, NAU’s Cameron Jones knocked down a turnaround jump shot in the lane and later scored a crucial basket on a backdoor baseline cut coming out of a timeout to fuel an 11-2 closing run that gave the Lumberjacks the win – and enraged EWU coach Kirk Earlywine.
Earlywine, who dressed his team down with a postgame tirade easily heard in the hallway outside the Eagles’ team room, was particularly incensed by Jones’ bucket following an NAU timeout that was called with just 44 seconds left and the ’Jacks trailing 69-68.
“The single most disappointing thing was that we told our players during that timeout exactly what play Northern Arizona was going to run, and they ran it,” he said. “I’m not sure what more we can do as coaches than to tell them exactly what’s coming.”
Jones’ score off the backdoor cut put the Lumberjacks up 70-69 with 30 seconds left.
The junior guard, who finished with a game-high 28 points, closed with a flair by making a free throw following a 3-point miss by EWU’s Glen Dean and then forcing the freshman guard into his fifth turnover and laying in the game’s final bucket.
Eastern’s Bennie Valentine, who has apparently extricated himself from Earlywine’s doghouse, confirmed his coach’s assessment of the Eagles’ late-game defensive failure.
“He told us in the last timeout that this was their go-to play; this was what they were going to do,” said the 5-foot-7 senior guard, who finished with a team-high 14 points, three assists and a steal after missing two of the last three games and playing only three minutes in the win over Montana State because of what Earlywine called a “coach’s decision.”
“They kind of play opossum out there on the wing and then slip (Jones) through the back door, and that’s exactly what happened. He told us that’s what they were going to do, and we just let it happen. We weren’t tough enough to stop it – even when we knew it was coming.”
NAU’s big finish highlighted an entertaining contest that saw 18 lead changes.
Valentine, who made 5 of 7 field-goal attempts – including 2 of 3 from 3-point range – was one of five Eagles to score in double figures.
Freshman guard Jeffrey Forbes finished with 12 points, while Dean and Moore, who also chased down 10 rebounds, each had 11.
The Eagles were hampered by the absence of junior guard Alden Gibbs, who sprained an ankle in a non-basketball related accident Tuesday, and redshirt freshman wing Abebe Demissie, who was suspended by Earlywine for academic reasons.
Earlywine said not having the 6-3 Gibbs available to help with defending the 6-3 Jones was particularly troubling.
“We needed another perimeter out there with some length and athletic ability to guard him,” he said. “We had five perimeter guys who could play tonight, and four of them are under 6-feet tall.
“Alden not being able to play really hurt us.”
The Eagles play at home again tonight when the face Northern Colorado in a 7:05 game at Reese Court.
N. Arizona 73, EWU 69
N. Arizona (8-9, 2-4)- C.Jones 12-15 4-8 28, Larson 4-10 0-0 9, Lepley 4-5 3-4 11, Rogers 1-1 2-2 5, Olubuyi 1-4 1-2 3, Saldivar 0-0 0-0 0, Platt 2-7 1-2 6, Wallace 0-2 0-0 0, Johannsen 4-7 3-3 11. Totals 28-51 14-21 73.
E. Washington (6-12, 2-3)- Forbes 5-12 2-2 13, Dunn 3-9 4-4 10, Moore 5-12 1-4 11, Dean 5-12 0-0 11, Gibson 1-1 1-2 3, Valentine 5-7 2-2 14, Griffin 1-4 0-0 2, Winford 2-5 0-0 5, Brunell 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 27-65 10-14 69.
Halftime—N. Arizona 36-35. 3-Point Goals—N. Arizona 3-11 (Rogers 1-1, Platt 1-4, Larson 1-5, Wallace 0-1), E. Washington 5-15 (Valentine 2-3, Dean 1-3, Forbes 1-4, Winford 1-4, Dunn 0-1). Fouled Out—Larson. Rebounds—N. Arizona 37 (C.Jones, Lepley 9), E. Washington 29 (Moore 10). Assists—N. Arizona 12 (Larson 3), E. Washington 12 (Dean 4). Total Fouls—N. Arizona 17, E. Washington 16. A—1,342.