Fittingly, it was Jeffrey Forbes who punched Eastern’s ticket Saturday afternoon.
With the Eagles clinging to a two-point lead with 40 seconds to play, Forbes punched the ball away from Idaho State’s Michael Morgan to help give Eastern an 81-75 win and a trip to the Big Sky semifinals.
“He put the ball right in front of of me,” said Forbes, who also scored a season-high 21 points in the biggest game of his college career. “I didn’t want to get called for a foul, so I just reached in and just tapped it, and it went my way.”
A few seconds later, so did the game, the biggest at Reese Court in at least six years.
On Tuesday in Missoula, Mont., the Eagles (15-16) will face top-seeded Montana.
If they win, they will play Wednesday night for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“We’ll celebrate tonight,” said Eagle coach Jim Hayford. “And we’ll wake up tomorrow and try to do some thing special in Missoula.”
In the first playoff game at Reese Court since 2006, the Eagles withstood a record long-range shooting day by Idaho State. The Bengals hit 14 of 33 long-range shots and scored 22 points off 14 Eastern turnovers, but finally faded thanks to the Eagles’ depth and defense down the stretch.
“We wore them down with foul trouble, and I think that got us some high-percentage looks in the second half,” said Hayford after a tense game that included eight lead changes and eight ties.
The Eagles’ Laron Griffin scored the last of his 21 points on a celebratory slam-dunk, but until then, the Eagles had to sweat out the final minutes.
The Eagles trailed by six with nine minutes to play – “Down six in the second half, that’s nothing for us,” quipped Hayford – but Forbes, Griffin and Cliff Colimon scored all the Eagles’ points in a 10-0 run.
Idaho State forged a tie at 66 with less than five minutes left, but Griffin capped a 6-0 Eastern run with a big layup to make it 72-66 with 2:15 to play.
McGowen cut that in half with his last three at 1:53, then sent Colimon to the foul line with 1:25 to play.
Griffin also had 11 rebounds for his sixth career double-double.
Colimon, who led the Eagles with 22 points and seven assists, hit both shots to put Eastern ahead 74-69, but Morgan answered eight seconds later to set up Forbes’ big steal and assist to Kevin Winford.
Idaho State guards Morgan, Kenny McGowen and Sherrod Baldwin combined for 60 points. McGowen’s 19 long-range attempts is a conference record, but he made just five of them. Morgan hit six of eight from beyond the arc.
The Eagles brought the intensity in the first minute, when Cliff Ederaine blocked a layin by the Bengals Abner Moreira. Eastern held a big 22-15 advantage on the boards in the first half, and 35-32 for the game.
Idaho State missed six of its first seven shots, and Eastern led 13-7 early.
But the Bengals answered with back-to-back threes and tied the game at 15 with just more than 12 minutes left in the half.
Idaho State interim coach Deane Martin made no substitutions for the first 15 minutes, but the Bengal starting five more than held their own to that point, leading by four with six minutes left in the half. The Idaho State starters played 93 of a possible 100 minutes in the first half.
McGowen and Morgan each went the distance and Moreira played 39.
“We didn’t want them to get any fastbreak points, and to get them tired,” said Forbes.
Eastern had won the two regular-season meetings with the Bengals, 85-78 in Pocatello on Feb. 23 and 77-64 on Tuesday in Cheney.