It was another physical clash between the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team and the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah, but after a season-high 47 foul calls, the Eagles survived for a 78-70 victory at Centrum Arena in Cedar City, Utah.
With the road win Saturday (Feb. 16), Eastern improves to 14-10 on the year and 10-5 in Big Sky Conference play, maintaining a one-game hold on third place in the standings. The Eags, one of only three teams to reach the 10-win mark so far this season, are two and 1/2 games back from league-leader Montana (13-3), and two games behind second-place Northern Colorado (12-3).
After leading for most of the first half in Cedar City, EWU gave up a 14-4 run in the final four minutes of the opening period to allow Southern Utah to go into their home locker room with a one-point (35-34) advantage. And the T-Birds did not lose any of that momentum during teh break, as they came out to score 17 of the first 26 points of the second period as well.
“Well, I didn’t like the way we played the last five minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half,” said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. “That was just bad basketball. Southern Utah was really aggressive and asserted themselves and we didn’t handle it well at all. We definitely dug ourselves a little bit of a hole.”
Trailing 52-43 with 15 minutes to play, Schuller called a timeout and decided to switch her team’s defensive approach. Following that break, EWU went on a 12-3 run to tie the game at 55-55.
“At about the 15-minute mark, things still were not looking good,” said Schuller. “We had practiced a little bit of zone earlier in the week, knowing we might need to go with that against this team, so we decided to do it. I really think it gave us some life, and also got them [SUU] out of rhythm offensively. It took away some of the things that were hurting us. We became a little more active, we starting moving better and communicating more. We finally got some stops and found transition baskets.”
EWU out-scored Southern Utah in the second half, 44-35, while holding the T-Birds to 32.3 percent shooting. As EWU's defense improved, so did the offense, as evidenced by 44 percent shooting for the Eagles in the second period, compared to a 36.4 percent effort in the first.
After getting out-rebounded 31-14 through the first 20 minutes, Eastern matched SUU in the second half with 21 boards, including a few key offensive rebounds.
“Southern Utah is an outstanding rebounding team,” said Schuller. “That was something we had talked about in the scout. Not everything in that regard carried over, as they still dominated us in the game, but we did a much better job in the second half on the glass, especially in terms of offensive rebounding. We had a few players come off the bench and get a couple huge boards for us. Chenise [Pakootas] had two right in a row, and Laura Hughes ended up with five.”
For the game, EWU led the Thunderbirds in second-chance points, 18-14. EWU also out-scored its opponent 36-20 in the paint, and had 22 points off turnovers.
There were a total of 47 fouls called in the game - a season-high for the Eagles. Their previous season-high was 43 from the first meeting of the year against the T-Birds.
Eastern made 25-of-26 free throws in that game on Jan. 26 in Cheney, but only managed to convert 22-of-32 on Saturday in Cedar City.
Junior Laura Hughes was a big force for the Eagles off the bench, recording a career-high-tying 20 points. She made 7-of-12 field goals and had eight rebounds.
Sophomore Lexie Nelson poured in a game-high 22 points on a 7-of-15 effort from the floor with two 3-pointers and 6-of-8 at the free throw line.
“Lexie is one of our primary scorers, and we thought she hadn’t been getting enough shots these last couple weeks,” said Schuller. “She hunted shots a little bit better tonight, and we found ways as a team to get her involved. When she’s active, she not only gets shot attempts, but she gets to the line, and that’s important for us. She got there eight times today, which shows her being aggressive.”
Junior Aubrey Ashenfelter reached double digits for the second-straight game, as she finished with 11 points, to go along with six rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Sophomore point guard Kylie Huerta was quiet on the offensive end, but did come up with a career-high seven steals.