It happened Feb. 28 at Reese Court: the final insult added to the injuries that defined the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball season.
Inside a minute to play, a 30-footer by Northern Colorado’s Tate Unruh found the backboard and then the net. Tie game. The Eagles couldn’t find an answer in overtime, losing a crucial game and eventually falling one game short of a spot in the Big Sky Conference tournament.
The injuries came first, all of them serious and some of them outrageous, such as the traffic accident in Grand Forks, N.D., that sidelined senior guards Jeffrey Forbes and Kevin Winford, and the ankle injury that felled leading scorer and rebounder Venky Jois. The unkindest cut of all to a young team: a sliced shooting hand that sidelined Forbes for two more weeks during the heart of the season.
“The tough thing is that the majority of our injuries happened to Jeff and Kevin,” Eastern head coach Jim Hayford said. “That thrust these even younger players into an even bigger role.”
Even before the injuries, the Eagles were staggered by the sudden departure at the beginning of January of starting point guard Justin Crosgile. At the time, Crosgile was the team’s leading scorer with a 14.5 average; at the end of the season he still led the Eagles in assists despite playing only 12 games.
Meanwhile, forward Collin Chiverton missed several weeks early in the season following the deaths of his mother and a close friend. He averaged 10.5 points a game but never regained the form that made him the Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year in 2011-12.
“We really thought Chiverton and Crosgile were going to have outstanding seasons,” Hayford said. “They had issues off the court that were not necessarily their fault, high-level players that we thought would carry the youth through, along with Jeff and Kevin and that would be the maturity to get us through it all.”
To their credit, the young Eagles never derailed. But they never found the fast track either, finishing 10-21 overall and 7-13 in the Big Sky Conference. Statistics back up that finish: Except for blocked shots, where Eastern set a school record with 113, the ninth-place Eagles were outperformed in every major category in conference games.
While the Eagles shot 41.0 percent from the field and 32.3 percent from the 3-point line, opponents hit 42.1 percent and 35.0 percent, respectively. Eastern lost the rebounding battles by an average of 3.3 boards a game, and suffered 265 turnovers, compared with 219 for opponents.
The biggest disparity came at the free-throw line, where opponents went to the line 451 times, hitting 70.1 percent. Eastern made just 64.7 percent on 117 fewer chances. Bottom line: The Eagles were outscored 316-216 at the line, or five points in every conference game.
Looking forward, the Eagles lose Forbes, Winford, Chiverton and backup Jordan Hickert; but they return three starters, including Big Sky Freshman of the Year Jois, center Martin Seiferth and promising freshman guard Tyler Harvey.
“Venky’s going to be one of the premier players in the Big Sky Conference,” Hayford said. “Potentially he could be a 2,000-point scorer. Legitimately, with Martin and Venky you can have an expectation of a double- double from them every night.”
Meanwhile, Harvey burst on the scene – and eventually into the starting lineup – by leading the Eagles to a come-from-way-behind win at Northern Arizona on Feb. 9.
Hayford got steady performances from sophomore guard Parker Kelly and freshman forward Thomas Reuter, both of whom averaged about 30 minutes a game when the injuries hit.
Kelly was the Eagles’ best 3-point threat, hitting 40.1 percent from long range. Reuter “is going to have a really good career, because he’s so versatile,” Hayford said.
The biggest offseason priority is to find another point guard. While freshman Daniel Hill turned in a solid performance and Harvey can play either guard position, Hayford said “the right point guard is really important, because that’s going to be your natural team leader.”