The gut-checks came seemingly every minute for Eastern Washington on Saturday afternoon.
The Eagles led Montana State by 16, then trailed by 11 with 12 minutes to play. They couldn’t take care of the ball and couldn’t stay out of foul trouble.
The biggest gut-check of all confronted forward Thomas Reuter, who two weeks ago could barely get out of bed. But on this occasion Reuter rose from the bench with the deciding play in the Eagles’ 77-72 Big Sky Conference win at Reese Court.
With the Eagles and Bobcats tied at 72 with 18 seconds left, Reuter took a deft pass from Drew Brandon for a layin that gave Eastern the lead for good. Three free throws later, the Eagles evened their Big Sky record at 2-2.
“I’m working my way back,” said Reuter, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a gastrointestinal disorder, during the Eagles’ late-December trip to the East Coast. Since then Reuter has lost 10 pounds and still isn’t sure what he can safely eat.
“But at the end of the game you have to stay focused,” said Reuter, who gave the Eagles 19 sorely needed minutes off the bench, including six points and eight rebounds.
Saturday’s game had it all. MSU came in with a perfect 3-0 record in the conference, but was almost shot out of Reese Court midway through the first half. Eight seconds into the game, Eastern guard Parker Kelly drilled a 3-pointer, then added three more in the next six minutes.
Backcourt mates Brandon and Tyler Harvey did the same against a packed-in MSU defense, and Eastern led 40-24 with less than six minutes left in the first half.
“When I get good looks, I just want to make them all,” said Kelly, who finished with 18 points and played 34 minutes despite a back injury suffered in the second half.
At one point midway through the first half, the Eagles were shooting 62 percent from the field, including 7 of 8 3-pointers.
But MSU rallied, turning several takeaways into scores to trail only 43-36 at intermission. The Bobcats (8-7, 3-1 Big Sky) poured it on early in the second half, making 10 of 11 shots and leading 61-50 after a layin by guard Antonio Biglow with 12:53 to play.
In other words, the Eagles were outscored 37-10 over a 13-minute span.
It didn’t help that Brandon picked up two quick fouls to start the second half; in fact, every starter except Harvey was playing with at least three fouls in the last 12 minutes.
And the turnovers continued; Eastern finished with 16, tying a season high. MSU scored 21 points off Eastern turnovers, also a season high for the Eagles.
“At the start of the second half everything was going wrong, but we didn’t hang our heads,” said Eagles coach Jim Hayford, whose team improved to 7-8 overall going into Thursday’s game at Northern Arizona.
The Eagles fought back with defense, holding MSU to just two field goals in the final nine minutes. Instead, the Bobcats went to the line, and missed an astounding 11 of 18 shots to help Eastern get back in the game.
At the other end of the court, Kelly made two free throws, Venky Jois hit a short jumper and Harvey drilled a three to slice the MSU lead to 61-56 with 11:27 left.
MSU gave up the lead with 4:47 left on another trey by Harvey, who played all 40 minutes and finished with a game-high 19 points.
The Bobcats regained the lead 12 seconds later, but lost it for good on Jois’ layup that made it 69-68 with 3:57 to play. Flavien Davis made a short jumper to tie the game at 72 before Reuter scored the eventual game-winner.
“Nobody is going to give us anything so we have to go take it,” Hayford said. “I think that is part of the team maturing, and I am just really, really proud of our team’s progress.”