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Eastern Washington University Basketball

‘We know this is our time’: Eastern Washington guard Jaleesa Lawrence adds well-rounded game to Eagles’ starting lineup

By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Heading into this women’s basketball season, Eastern Washington’s Jaleesa Lawrence set a couple of personal goals.

She wanted to improve her 3-point shooting. She also wanted to increase her rebounding total.

Neither has happened. But at the same time, this season hasn’t exactly gone the way the junior guard assumed it would. And she is fine with that.

“That’s the other thing about goals,” Lawrence said Tuesday. “Everything’s about learning lessons and growing.”

The Eastern Washington women’s basketball team is having a season that will almost certainly go down as the program’s best. The Eagles (21-5, 11-2 Big Sky) are one win from setting a program record for victories in a season, and on Thursday they host the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (19-7, 11-2) in a matchup of the Big Sky Conference’s top two teams. Tip is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Reese Court in Cheney.

Lawrence has relished being a part of this veteran team, one led by grad students Milly Knowles and Jamie Loera – this week’s Big Sky Player of the Week – and senior Jacinta Buckley.

But with Buckley out since Jan. 25 with an injury, Lawrence has found herself back in the starting lineup – a place she began the season when the Eagles were easing injured junior Jaydia Martin back into a starting spot.

It’s a role whiplash that has challenged Lawrence and her preseason goals. But she has also been a crucial, flexible, hard-working piece in the Eagles’ success.

“Jaleesa is the best at doing whatever is needed,” EWU head coach Joddie Gleason said. “She gets to draw, usually, one of the best scorers on the other team. She’s been in and out of the starting lineup, and everything (she does) is with a smile. She is just ready to go.”

Lawrence ranks third on the team in scoring (10.2 points per game), second in steals (32) and first in free-throw shooting (86.3%). All of those are improvements over last year, even as her 3-point shooting (33.7%) and rebounding (3.4 per game) are almost identical to what they were in 2022-23.

She has also played at least 30 minutes in seven straight games. As Gleason highlighted, Lawrence has been tasked with guarding power forwards over that stretch.

That has forced the 5-foot-10 guard from Meridian, Idaho, to get better at boxing out and creating space so that her teammates can get more rebounds, something she called “a rebound assist.”

“I took it as a challenge,” Lawrence said of learning a new role. “I am a lot better at boxing out now.”

The Eagles lost their first two games without Buckley – 89-81 in overtime at Northern Arizona and 62-61 at home to Montana State – but have since won five in a row, including a road sweep at Idaho State (59-56) and Weber State (74-54) last week.

“I think it took us a minute to fill in the roles,” Gleason said, “even as a coaching staff to figure out our subbing patterns and the plays we want to run, because people are in different positions.”

Junior guard Alexis Pettis, for example, has seen her average minutes increase by about 5 per game to 18.7 over the past seven contests. Redshirt sophomore guard Aaliyah Alexander, who ranks second in the conference in scoring (15.7 points per game), is also playing more in the post on offense.

“Everything’s just a little bit different,” Gleason said. “It takes time, and we’ve figured it out.”

The recalibration comes at a good time for the Eagles. With five games to go until the Big Sky Tournament, a win Thursday would give them sole possession of first place and move them one step closer to a first-round bye. Their next three games come against the next three teams in the standings: at home against Northern Colorado (7-6) on Saturday, and at Montana (9-4) and Montana State (8-5) next week.

But it’s a position for which the Eagles are well prepared, Lawrence said.

“It’s been three years in the making with this team,” she said. “We know this is our time.”