A season of growing pains hurt even more Saturday afternoon at Reese Court.
With the postseason hanging in the balance in the final home game of the season – and on Senior Day to boot – Eastern Washington couldn’t find the answers and lost 78-74 to North Dakota.
“We would have liked to have a storybook ending for the seniors, but unfortunately it didn’t happen that way,” Eastern coach Jim Hayford said.
Instead, the Eagles (6-12 in the Big Sky and 9-20 overall) will close the book on the 2012-13 season with an anticlimactic road trip after being all but eliminated from contention for a spot in the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
With two games left at Idaho State and second-place Weber State, the Eagles can finish no better than 8-12 in conference play and would need almost providential help to finish in a tie for seventh place – the last spot in the tournament.
With the win, conference newcomer North Dakota (11-8, 14-15) locked up a spot in the tournament.
After trailing by as many as 14 points in the first half and by 11 early in the second, the Eagles put themselves in position to win thanks to strong second-half shooting and a big effort inside by Martin Seiferth.
Trailing 71-70 with 80 seconds to play, the Eagles lost their only chance at the lead when North Dakota’s Jamal Webb stole the ball from Collin Chiverton and scored at the other end to put the visitors ahead by three. It was Eastern’s 16th turnover of the game, following 21 in Thursday’s overtime loss to Northern Colorado.
Finally, with 10 seconds left and Eastern down 75-72, senior Jeffrey Forbes missed a 3-point attempt that might have forced overtime. North Dakota’s Troy Huff then put an exclamation point on the win with a slam dunk and the last of his career-high 34 points.
“We got a great look, and if we could always get that shot for Jeff from the corner for a wide-open three, I’d take it a hundred times,” Hayford said. “Collin had a great pass to him, but it just didn’t go down.”
Until then, the Eagles were hitting 60 percent of their shots in the second half, using Forbes to shut down Huff and holding their own on the boards thanks a 14-rebound, eight-block effort from Seiferth.
And in just his second start at point guard, freshman Tyler Harvey scored a game-high 21 points and dished out eight assists.
“We battled – we really, really battled,” Hayford said. “We had great efficiency in the second half. That showed a lot of growth in our team, because it wasn’t because we were shooting 3-pointers well (8 for 24 for the game).
“We were getting other things done.”
The game was an uphill climb from the start. Huff, a slender, athletic 6-foot-5 guard whose 19.2 scoring average ranks third in the conference, had 15 points in the first five minutes Saturday afternoon.
“We started with the zone and he made his first two threes,” Hayford said. It got worse, as North Dakota took a 22-8 lead with 13:20 left in the half – all but two points coming from Huff.
Fourteen minutes into the game, Huff was still outscoring the Eagles by himself, 24-23.
Huff had only 10 points the rest of the way thanks a strong defensive effort by Forbes. Eastern rallied to close to 38-31 at halftime and got within two early in the second half. But North Dakota’s Aaron Anderson, who finished with 18 points, halted the rally with a 3-pointer and Huff broke free for a layup to put the visitors up 47-36 with 15:12 left in the game.
“We grinded to get there, but I’m really heartbroken for our players,” Hayford said.
That included the seniors – Forbes, Chiverton, Jordan Hickert and Kevin Winford.