MISSOULA – Confidence was a fragile commodity Friday afternoon for the Eastern Washington women’s basketball team.
The Eagles had plenty of swagger entering their Big Sky Conference semifinal against host Montana, but it slipped away in a 55-51 defeat that was the product of poor long-range shooting, a hostile crowd and a physical game that seemed to favor the hosts.
To their credit, the Eagles came back from a 16-point second-half deficit and made it a five-point game with seven minutes left, but got no closer than four the rest of the way.
EWU coach Wendy Schuller, whose team improved to 20-10 two days earlier after an easy quarterfinal win over Northern Arizona, said her team didn’t adjust soon enough to a loosely-officiated game.
“Physicalled up, ridden or whatever you want to call it, we weren’t tough enough in those situations,” Schuller said. “We finally figured that out with about six or seven minutes to go.”
The season may not be over. Within the past six years, two 19-win EWU teams have played in the Women’s NIT. “I think we still have a few more games in us,” Eagles guard Lexie Nelson said.
The Lady Griz (23-8) will play Northern Colorado for an NCAA tournament berth tonight mostly because they found an answer to every Eagles threat down the stretch:
• After Eastern’s Marly Anderson hit a jumper to get the Eagles within 45-40, Montana guard Hannah Doran launched a long-range shot that twice hit the rim before dropping through the net.
• After Eastern’s Jade Redmon converted two foul shots to make it 53-49 with 2:01 to play, the Eagles got the ball back on a steal by Nelson, but the Griz got two defensive stops before McCalle Feller drained two free throws for a 55-49 advantage with 46 seconds left.
• Finally, after Montana’s Kellie Rubel missed the front end of a one-and-one, the pro-Griz crowd was in full roar as Hayley Hodgins missed a jumper and Carly Selvig came down with the game-clinching rebound with 24 seconds left.
Said Hodgins, “I think we’ve always done well in those do-or-die situations, and it’s unfortunate that we allowed ourselves to get to that point.”
Indeed, the latter part of the first half couldn’t have gone worse for the Eagles, who took an early 8-5 lead and were tied at 14-all before things unraveled.
Going into the game, the Eagles’ confidence was bolstered by the NAU game, while Montana had struggled in a two-point win over Idaho State.
But in the first half, while facing a defense that clogged the middle, Eastern shot 7 for 26 from the field and missed all eight of its 3-point attempts. The Lady Griz commanded the boards by a margin of 29-18 and shot 43 percent from the field on the way to a 29-18 lead.
Said Schuller, “The physicality of the game, I didn’t think that played to our favor, and when it got that way, I didn’t think it was going to be good for us.”
The 18 points amounted to the lowest first-half total this season for the Eagles, whose previous low was 20 in an early-season loss at Southern Methodist.
Nelson led Eastern with 14 points on 4-for-9 shooting and reserve Marly Anderson had a season-high 10 while shooting 4 for 5.
However, the rest of the Eagles were a combined 9 for 28.
For the game, Eastern was 3 of 15 from beyond the arc and outrebounded 37-28.
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