CHENEY – The door to a berth in the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament for Eastern Washington isn’t shut, but with Thursday night’s 60-56 loss to Montana State the port of entry has become a little thinner.
The Bobcats broke a tie in the conference standings with Eastern and moved a game up with a 6-8 record (12-16 overall). The Eagles fell to 5-9, 8-19.
An Eastern win against Montana on Saturday would clinch a conference berth for Eastern.
Fortunately for the Eagles, Northern Arizona defeated Sacramento State, 63-42, which allows Eastern – for the moment – to cling to the sixth and final tournament seed. Sacramento State and Idaho State are both at 4-10. Portland State, also 4-10, is ineligible for postseason play.
In Thursday’s defeat, offensive ineptitude for most of the second half spelled Eastern’s doom. It’s the third straight game Eastern has lost after leading at halftime.
The Eagles started the second half and acted as though they wanted to pull away, building a 45-35 lead, their biggest of the game. But with 9:39 left, MSU’s Shawn Reid hit a 3 to tie the game at 46 apiece.
Montana State’s offensive outburst continued and with 5:31 left to play built a 52-47 lead when diminutive guard Rod Singleton scored on consecutive drives, capping a 17-2 run.
A mere 22 points was all Eastern could put on the board after the half. The Eagles could only register eight field goals and committed eight second-half turnovers.
Eastern coach Kirk Earlywine said his team was too cavalier in executing its offense.
“We didn’t play smart offensive basketball when we got up by 10 in the second half,” Earlywine said. “Bad turnovers, uncharacteristic turnovers …”
“We didn’t value the possession of the ball. We had a power forward trying to dribble the ball up the court behind his back in traffic; we try to throw a 75-foot pass down the floor which ends up out of bounds in transition. We were too casual with the basketball.”
Eastern bolted to a quick and early 10-3 lead before the Bobcats went on a 16-8 run to take their first lead of the game.
Before the tipoff, Eastern’s Glen Dean sank two free throws when Montana State’s starting center Tre Johnson was assessed a technical foul for dunking the basketball during the pregame warm-up.
The Eagles’ Laron Griffin established his presence on the inside early and was 4 for 6 from the floor in the first half. He also had 10 rebounds in the first half; the Bobcats as a team only had one more rebound than Griffin.
Griffin turned in a work horse performance with 12 points and 15 rebounds for the game, seven of them coming from the offensive end.