Kirk Earlywine figured Weber State would eventually find a way to survive without junior guard and reigning Big Sky Conference MVP Damian Lillard, who suffered a season-ending foot injury nine games into the season.
Now the Eastern Washington men’s basketball coach faces the unenviable task of trying to slow down the Wildcats, the Big Sky’s hottest team, at Reese Court tonight.
Weber (13-9 overall, 7-4 in the BSC) comes in riding a four-game winning streak that has vaulted the Wildcats into sole possession of third place in the conference standings, two games ahead of EWU (8-15, 5-6). The last three of those victories – over Montana, Montana State and Northern Arizona – have come by an average margin of 21 points.
“It not something that can happen overnight,” Earlywine said of WSU’s late-season turnaround. “But it’s been six or seven weeks now since they lost Lillard, and they’re figuring out how to win without him.”
Among those who have increased their offensive production to help offset the 19.7 points per game Lillard was averaging is sophomore guard Scott Bamforth, who made 7 of 10 3-point tries and finished with a career-high 27 points in the Wildcats’ 82-55 rout of Northern Arizona on Thursday.
But Earlywine credits much of Weber’s recent success on experience, pointing out that coach Randy Rahe has four players on his roster who have been in the program four or more years. That includes fifth-year senior forward Darin Mahoney, who originally signed with WSU in 2003 when Earlywine was an assistant there under Joe Cravens.
“He might be collecting a social security check by now, he’s so damn old,” Earlywine said of the 24-year-old Mahoney. “After we signed him at Weber, he spent two years on a (Latter-day Saint) mission and then gray-shirted, redshirted, purple-shirted … whatever.
“I just know he’s been there a long time, and when they walk onto the floor (tonight), they’ll have a couple of other 23-year-olds who have been around a long time, too. They’re an unbelievably experienced group, so you knew it was just a matter of time until they figured out their new roles, and how to be awfully good again without Damian Lillard.”
Eastern, which snapped an 18-game road losing streak with a 69-67 win over Idaho State last Saturday, has no one on its roster who has been in the program for more than two years. The Eagles’ top three scorers – Glen Dean (12.2 ppg), Kevin Winford (11.4) and Jeffrey Forbes (10.6) – are sophomores.