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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Fourth-seeded Eastern Washington women pull out all the stops to hold off fifth-seeded Montana 72-64

Eastern Washington guard Jamie Loera drives for a layup on Monday during a Big Sky tournament quarterfinals game against Montana.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – You’ve got questions? Eastern Washington has answers.

Big shots. Defensive stops. Another body off the bench.

And the Eagle women had to summon all those solutions to hold off Montana 72-64 on Monday afternoon and advance to the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference Basketball Tournament.

Often as not, the answers for Montana’s challenge came from Jamie Loera and Aaliyah Alexander, two players at opposite ends of EWU’s experience spectrum who each scored 23 points as the Eagles (19-10) earned a Tuesday 11 a.m. PST date against the tournament’s top seed, Northern Arizona at Idaho Central Arena.

“Those two guards really hurt us,” said UM coach Brian Holsinger. “We did not guard them well.”

But for EWU coach Joddie Gleason, Eastern’s first tournament win since 2019 went deeper – 11 deep, in fact.

“We had everybody contribute who came into the game,” Gleason said. “We don’t want to see it end so we’re going to keep fighting.”

It’s true. Even Jayden McNeal – a freshman playing in her hometown who had just four minutes of run as EWU’s sixth sub off the bench – banged in a 16-footer in a third-quarter rally that repelled another Montana surge.

And the Eagles have needed every contribution in the wake of the injury that put leading scorer Jaydia Martin on crutches a month ago.

“People had to step up and into new roles,” said Loera, a graduate transfer from Arizona State. “People who were only getting 20 minutes were stepping into more minutes, and others had to take more shots to make up for Jaydia’s amazing scoring capabilities. At the end of the day, it’s for each other. We compete with joy and that’s for those who can’t play right now, too.

“Teams get hit with adversity all the time.”

As the Eagles did right from the jump Monday, Montana taking a quick 8-2 lead and making 10 of 13 shots in a first quarter that ended with Eastern down 23-18.

That deficit grew to 31-22 after back-to-back 3-pointers by UM’s Dani Bartsch and Colfax senior Carmen Gfeller – which was about the time Eastern put a stop to it. Or stops.

Eastern Washington guard Aaliyah Alexander celebrates a 3-pointer on Monday during a Big Sky tournament quarterfinals game against Montana.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
Eastern Washington guard Aaliyah Alexander celebrates a 3-pointer on Monday during a Big Sky tournament quarterfinals game against Montana. (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)

Seven straight times down the floor, Montana came up empty and its lead disappeared. In the last 6:48 of the quarter, the Grizzlies were outscored 21-4, and turned it over three times to close the half – two of those steals by Loera. Their biggest lapse came just three seconds before intermission when Loera – with just two ticks left on shot clock – threw the ball inbounds from the right sideline and found Jacinta Buckley free under the basket for a lay-up.

And yet that’s when it really got interesting. The Grizzlies made no fewer than four bursts in the second half to whittle that eight-point lead down to four, two, three and finally five points – and each time Eastern fought them off. Once it was the Eagles getting five straight stops to close the third quarter; in the final period, it was Buckley and Alexander stroking nervy 3s – Alexander’s shot from the left corner with 46.7 seconds settling the issue.

“It’s always a combination of a big shot and good defense,” said Gleason. “But we try to focus on stops and rebounds as much as we can.”

It was hard to pinpoint a focus for Loera, whose remarkable stat line included three 3s, nine rebounds, seven assists and five steals.

“She’s a little menace,” Gleason acknowledged.

And Alexander, a freshman from Federal Way who plays older, came up with a career high in her first Big Sky tournament game, helped by 4-of-9 shooting from 3.

“She’s a point guard by trade and we basically move her to the 4 – she’s guarding 4s,” Gleason said. “It’s really been next person up. Gabby Jung started for several games when Jacinta was out. Jaleesa Lawrence moved into the lineup, and it went down the line. That’s why you have a full roster – and the calming force of Jamie and Aaliyah out there really helped bring those people along.”

The Grizzlies are still 0-for-Boise in the five years the tournament has been here – but Gfeller, their leading scorer, isn’t through trying, having decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s COVID exemption for another season.

“It’s really hard to come in here and walk out the next day,” said Gfeller, who had 18 points. “I’m grateful to come back and get another shot at it.”