The Eagles are trying to take them one at a time.
But even in early January, with 17 Big Sky Conference games still ahead of them, the Eastern Washington coaches and players couldn’t help but linger over their 69-62 win over Montana on Thursday night at Reese Court.
“This was big,” Eagles coach Jim Hayford said of his first win in six tries over the two-time defending conference-champion Grizzlies.
The opponent didn’t matter; the Eagles (6-8 overall, 1-2 Big Sky), mired in a six-game losing streak, simply needed any kind of win to get back on track. Improbably for a team that was missing several key reserve players, they did it with defense.
In a game that was equal parts gut check and marathon – four Eastern starters logged 37 minutes or more – the Eagles sprinted away late in the game thanks to a pair of drives from sophomore guard Tyler Harvey.
With the Eagles leading 64-58 with 2 1/2 minutes to play, Harvey went the distance, dribbled past three Grizzlies and scored on an underhand scoop shot. Less than 30 seconds later, after a Montana score, Harvey did it again and the Eagles were almost home free with a 68-60 advantage with 2:01 to play.
“As a kid you practice those all the time, so it helped me now,” said Harvey, who played 38 minutes and hit 10 of 21 shots en route to a game-high 25 points.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies (6-6 overall, 1-2 Big Sky) made only two field goals in the last four minutes as Eastern held on in front of a crowd of 2,043.
For the game, Montana got off only 50 shots and made just 22, while Eastern was 27 for 60. A big reason was Parker Kelly rising to the challenge of defending returning Big Sky MVP Kareem Jamar, holding him to a season-low 10 points.
“This was a defensive battle, and it was a defensive win,” Hayford said. “There were some matchup things we had to go through to get baskets, but at the end of the day this was about grinding it out on defense.”
And just plain grinding it out, especially for center Martin Seiferth.
After struggling last month, Seiferth played perhaps his best game of the season against the Grizzlies: 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting, a game-high 12 rebounds, four blocks and five slam dunks.
“I told myself that I need to bring something to the team that helps us get the win, and the team gave me some great assists,” Seiferth said.
The Eagles caught a few breaks – Jamar was saddled with foul trouble all night – but mostly they made their own.
With Eastern leading 48-44 midway through the second half, Venky Jois stole the ball and was heading for a sure basket when Montana center Mike Weisner hammered Jois on the head. After watching a video replay, officials ejected Weisner for a flagrant foul.
“Those are the kind of things that can end a guy’s career,” Hayford said. “Mike Weisner is a good kid, but you don’t foul a guy like that.”
Jois made one free throw, then Harvey hit a big jumper to push the lead to seven.
“Montana has some toughness, but they are not pushing us around in our gym,” Hayford said.
Perhaps Hayford’s biggest challenge was getting the most out of a thin bench. Backup forward Thomas Reuter played briefly despite the effects of a recent diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease, while reserve Ognjen Miljkovic wore street clothes as he recovers from a high ankle sprain.
Reserve Garrett Moon logged 11 minutes to spell Seiferth, but Kelly and point guard Drew Brandon played the entire game. Jois played all but three minutes.