The winter quarter is three days away, but Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford was already handing out some tough grades after the Eagles’ 76-69 loss to Weber State on Thursday night.
He also handed out some hope for the future.
Eastern overcame a slow start – where it fell behind by 17 points midway through the first half – but led with 9 minutes left before letting the Wildcats get away in the Eagles’ Big Sky Conference home opener.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Hayford said. “I wasn’t proud when we got down, but I was proud of us to come back from that and actually grab a lead in the second half against the premier team in the conference, and that’s something we can build on.”
The Wildcats improved to 11-3 overall and 3-0 in the conference. The Eagles (7-8, 1-2) play host Saturday night to Northern Arizona, which lost 82-62 at Portland State (5-10, 1-2) on Thursday night. Tipoff is at 6:05.
Weber State guard Damian Lillard – the NCAA scoring leader coming into the game – took charge early, hitting his first five shots and at one point accounting for 14 of the Wildcats’ first 27 points. Weber led 27-10 at that point, but EWU guard Cliff Colimon and forward Cliff Ederaine fueled a furious comeback that pulled EWU to within three, 36-33, at halftime.
The rally didn’t stop there. With 9 minutes left, EWU took a 56-55 lead – its last of the night – on a layup by Ederaine, who led Eastern Washington with 20 points and nine rebounds.
“He showed a tremendous amount of heart,” Hayford said.
Then it slipped away, and Hayford said he knew why, grading the Eagles with a “D” for 3-point shooting (27 percent in the second half), rebounding (Weber won that battle 44-31), and their defense against Lillard and his backcourt mate, Scott Bamforth.
“We knew that this was a two-stroke engine Weber had,” Hayford said. “Both guys exceeded their averages and we didn’t do what we needed to do to stop them. We did a great job on Lillard, but he ended up with 30 points. Give him credit. He and Bamforth are tough to guard. It’s a veteran team. Those two guys are one of the best backcourts on the West Coast and they showed us tonight.”
Lillard finished with 30 points, with 12 coming on free throws down the stretch as the Eagles were forced to foul. Bamforth hit three crucial 3-pointers that kept the Eagles at arm’s length in the last nine minutes. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ leading scorer, forward Colin Chiverton, was 1 for 10 from the field and finished with three points..
“We didn’t shoot and we let Bamforth hit those 3s,” said Colimon, who was 2 for 9 in the second half.
Eastern had only nine turnovers compared to 22 for the Wildcats, but the Eagles made only 36 percent of their shots from the field compared to 44 percent for the Wildcats.
During its 16-3 run in the first half, EWU made 6 of 13 shots from the field after opening the half making just 6 of its first 22 shots.
The Eagles made 38 percent in the second half, but could hit only 3 of 11 3-point attempts.
“We might not have beaten them today,” Hayford said, “but the time we need to beat them is in a couple months. There is a ceiling that this team can reach.”