Parker Kelly knows he has the green light.
“If you’re open, you have to shoot it,” said Kelly, who hit two 3-pointers – the last with 14 seconds left – to drive Eastern Washington forward to a crucial 79-76 Big Sky Conference win over Northern Colorado on Wednesday night at Reese Court.
In overcoming a 17-point deficit in the second half, the Eagles took a two-game lead in the loss column over the Bears and put themselves alone in fifth place with three games to play.
Six teams qualify for the conference postseason tournament.
The win was doubly important since EWU had lost to the Bears 71-70 last month in Greeley, Colo. A loss Wednesday would have left the teams tied in the loss column.
At halftime, that looked probable.
“I love my team, but we sure are schizophrenic,” said head coach Jim Hayford, whose team turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, but just four times in the second. Eastern trailed 43-29 at intermission.
Northern Colorado boosted the lead to 16 on three occasions in the second half, the last time with just 11:25 left, but senior guard Colimon took over, driving and dishing with one of the best games of his Eastern career.
Colimon finished with a game-high 22 points along with nine rebounds and nine assists.
“We’ve asked him to be an attacking point guard, and that’s as close to a triple-double as you can get,” Hayford said.
In a 4-minute span, Colimon scored eight points and added an assist as Eastern suddenly got back in the game at 67-61 with 7:13 left.
Kelly, a walk-on freshman from Gonzaga Prep, hit the first of his three long-range shots with 4:30 to play, and suddenly it was a one-point game. Northern Colorado was back up by four, but Collin Chiverton and Kelly hit back-to-back 3s – Kelly’s at the 1:50 mark giving Eastern its first lead since early in the first half.
Colimon’s perfect pass with 1:08 left led to a near slam-dunk by Cliff Ederaine, who made one foul shot.
“Coach is always preaching to set up winning plays,” Colimon said.
Mike Proctor gave the Bears their last lead with two free throws with 25 seconds left, setting up Kelly’s winning shot.
After a UNC turnover with 4 seconds to play, Chiverton was fouled and made one free throw, the last of his 19 points. The Bears final downcourt pass was out of bounds, giving Eastern an important win.
“Wins are hard to come by, and I don’t want to think about the next game,” Hayford said.
That would be Saturday’s Bracket Buster game at Cal Irvine, a low-pressure affair that gives several Eagles – including senirs Ederaine, Tremayne Johnson and Laron Griffin – and a chance to play one more time in front of friends and family in Southern California.
The Eagles, 12-14 overall, return to Big Sky action next Thursday at Idaho State.
The first half resembled the Eagles’ last home game, a 75-71 loss to Sacramento State that included a 19-point halftime deficit.
The Eagles struggled early to contain post Connor Osborne, who took seven of the Bears’ first 10 shots and had six points in the first 4 minutes. He finished with a team-high 17 points.
Eastern adjusted, but so did the Bears, who hit seven of their first eight from long range, including two ugly shots from Paul Garnica that found nothing but net. The Bears’ Tate Unruh did most of the damage, hitting 4 of 5 3-pointers and scoring 12 points by intermission. He finished with 16.
“We really were getting good looks in the first half, but not good shots,” Kelly said. “Coach gave us confidence in the locker room.”
The Bears cooled off after that, but the Eagles hurt themselves with 11 first-half turnovers, including seven in the last 8 minutes of the half.