The Eastern Washington basketball team had every reason to panic Thursday night. The Eagles simply didn’t have time.
With a double-digit lead down to two points and their leading scorer down on the floor, the Eagles held their composure and a slim lead for an important 72-68 win over Montana State at Reese Court.
“We gut-checked it (at the end), and we finished it out with some adversity through the end,” said Eastern coach Jim Hayford, whose club improved to 4-7 in the conference and 6-15 overall despite playing the last 3 minutes without leading scorer and conference rebounding leader Venky Jois.
Jois had eight points, 14 rebounds and seven assists when he suffered an ankle injury that leaves his status uncertain for Saturday’s game with Montana, according to Hayford.
Still, it was no time for panic.
“When you are in the game and someone gets hurt, you don’t have time (to think about that),” Hayford said. “It was like he fouled out.”
Leading 68-66 with a minute left, the Eagles’ Daniel Hill missed a driving layin to give MSU a chance to tie or lead for the first time since early in the game. But the Bobcats’ Flavien Davis missed a 3-point shot at the top of the arc, and EWU senior guard Kevin Winford – all 5-foot-11 of him – came down with one of the biggest rebounds of the season.
“We just had to suck it up,” said Winford, who finished with 13 points and seven boards.
The final test came under the Eagles’ own basket, just after MSU had cut the lead to 70-68 on Antonio Biglow’s layin with 19 seconds left.
The Bobcats pressured Eagle ballhandler Parker Kelly, who looked for an open man even as Hayford contemplated taking a timeout.
But coaches need composure too, and Hayford kept his along with his last timeout.
“I knew we had 10 seconds … I was watching the game clock,” Hayford recalled. Just then, Kelly found Daniel Hill, who in found Collin Chiverton.
Chiverton, one of three seniors on the youngest team in the conference, in turn found the net on two more free throws and the last of his game-high 20 points with 8 seconds left.
Chiverton’s free throws notwithstanding, the Eagles opened and closed this one with defense, holding the Bobcats to the lowest shooting percentage of the year for an EWU opponent.
MSU was 20 for 66 for the game for 30.3 percent, while the Eagles were 22 for 55 for 40 percent. The Bobcats made that up on the boards with a 16-6 edge on the offensive glass.
“I have to think our first-shot defense was like 16 or 17 percent, but it would be nice to rebound a little better,” Hayford said. “There’s no secret the reason we won tonight was because we played outstanding defense.”
Indeed after leading 11-10 early in the game, the Bobcats missed 22 of their next 28 shots while Eastern took its biggest lead of the game, 50-37, on Martin Seiferth’s free throw with 17:21 to play.
The Eagles still led 62-49 on Seiferth’s layup with 8:17 left before the Bobcats (6-5 in the Big Sky and 9-10 overall) found their shooting touch and forced nine turnovers in the second half.
Kelly finished with 15 points and Winford with 13; both played a game-high 36 minutes. Jois played 34 minutes out of a possible 37 before being injured.