It could have been prettier – and a whole lot easier. But any win that comes on top of a five-game losing streak is a keeper.
Which is why Eastern Washington University’s Kirk Earlywine kept any negative thoughts he might have had about Thursday afternoon’s 79-75 Big Sky Conference men’s basketball win over Sacramento State pretty much to himself.
“We probably shouldn’t have had to hang on that tight,” was about as far as the EWU’s third-year head coach would go after watching his team fritter away all but a couple of points of a big second-half lead and then hang on to outlast the Hornets at Reese Court.
Even with that, he was being kind to his Eagles (5-10, 1-1 Big Sky), who needed a career-high 29 points and seven assists from freshman point guard Glen Dean to put away a Hornets team (6-9, 1-2) that finished 2-27 last year.
Eastern was up by 16 points midway through the second half, but found itself leading by only 75-73 after the Hornets’ John Dickson knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of key with just less than 20 seconds remaining. The Eagles closed things out with four consecutive free throws from senior forward Mark Dunn, who finished with 26 points and nine rebounds, and Dean to snap their five-game skid.
“This was a very important win for us,” said Earlywine, whose team played at Reese Court for the first time since Dec. 12. “It seemed like it had been two years since we’d played at home.”
Dean, a 5-foot-10, 170-pounder out of Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, seemed particularly comfortable in more familiar surroundings, knocking down seven 3-pointers to tie a single-game school record held by five others.
The 6-8, 260-pound Dunn was a force inside, scoring on nine of his 14 field-goal tries and finishing 6 for 6 from the foul line.
Earlywine was extremely pleased, but not surprised, by Dean’s effort, which also included three rebounds and only two turnovers.
“He’s been very, very consistent, not only in terms of his performance but in his effort level, as well,” Earlywine said. “Every day in practice – and in every bounce of the ball – he competes his butt off.”
Not surprisingly, Dean suggested the Eagles’ recent struggles have been more a matter of lack of effort than lack of confidence.
“I guess our confidence was hurting a little bit,” he said. “But, in my opinion, it was more about our effort level. We’ve got a lot of good players on this team, but I think we just weren’t trying hard enough – especially on defense – in some of those (losses).”
Of his record-tying, long-range shooting performance, Dean added, “Coach always tells us, ‘If you’re open and your feet are set, it’s a good shot, so take it.’ I guess I had some good looks, and I just kind of fell into a good rhythm.
“We definitely needed this win to get back on the right track and realize that we can compete in the Big Sky.”
The Eagles needed the big effort from Dean and Dunn to offset the absences of senior guard Benny Valentine and senior forward Matt Brunell.
Valentine, according to Earlywine, did not play because of a “coach’s decision,” and Brunell was sidelined with an ankle injury.
Earlywine refused to disclose what went into his decision to not play Valentine, who is averaging 10.2 points per game. When asked if Valentine will play in the Eagles’ Jan. 8 road matchup against Big Sky rival Montana, Earlywine said, “Yet to be determined.”
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