Trenton Cross had a career night in Cal State Northridge’s 78-75 Big Sky Conference men’s basketball victory over the Eastern Washington Eagles Thursday night in Cheney, but give the key assist to Walter Payton.
Payton, the former football great, met Cal State Northridge coach Bobby Braswell in the lobby of the Red Lion Hotel Wednesday night. An introductory conversation turned into an offer by Payton to speak to Braswell’s team after Payton had delivered his featured remarks at the Greater Spokane Sports Association banquet.
Braswell praised Payton for his 30-minute, late-night oration, for assuring the reeling Matadors that the only way they could lose was if they beat themselves. Turns out he was right.
The Eagles beat them to the punch.
It was Eastern - up by 10 points with 6:11 to go - that made enough ball-handling mistakes to spoil a promising night. Five Eagles turnovers contributed to the first 11 points in Northridge’s game-turning 20-2 run.
Cross had a career-high 30 points as Northridge snatched what could be a season-salvaging win from the Eagles, who played hard and reasonably well for coach Steve Aggers.
Aggers watched his team fall to 2-10 in the Big Sky - three games behind Northridge and four behind Portland State in the race for the sixth and final berth in the conference tournament.
Eastern played without 6-foot-10 center Kevin Lewis, who’ll miss the rest of the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Eagles are still coping with the December death of their point guard, Rodrick McClure. Yet they effectively sagged inside defensively and, at the other end, ran a patient zone offense that eventually forced Northridge into a man-to-man defense. That switch led to the Matadors’ salvation.
So give the Eagles credit for scrambling all the way to the final shot. Senior guard Travis King’s 3-point attempt as time expired could have sent it into overtime.
Incredibly, the Eagles - down 78-70 - made up five points in 29 seconds, ending when King intentionally missed a free throw and Michael Lewis soared for the rebound and putback that pulled EWU to within three points at 78-75 with 11 seconds left.
When Cross missed two free throws with 10 ticks to go, EWU had a shot at OT.
“Our margin of error is so thin we can’t win with 18 turnovers,” Aggers said. “We have to keep them down to 14 or fewer. This is a real killer. We win this one and we’re only one game behind them. Now, we have to win Saturday night (against conference leader Northern Arizona at EWU) and win on the road.”
Although the 5-11 Cross was the quick perimeter presence that confounded the Eagles defense, the killer shot came from a backup point guard aptly named Lucky.
Lucky Grundy’s 3-point shot with 58 seconds left put the Matadors up 74-70. It was Grundy’s first night coming off the bench after starting 17 straight games.
EWU’s Jon Berger had pulled the Eagles to within a point at 71-70 with a tip with 1:29 to go. It was Berger who had given the Eagles a 68-58 lead with a short jumper. At that point, the Eagles were in position to end their seven-game losing streak.
Karim Scott had carried them that far with five points in a 30-second stretch. Scott was fouled, converted the free throw and the Eagles led 64-56 with 7:02 left.
See box score in Stat Sheet/C5
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