Meeting for the first time as conference rivals, the Eastern Washington University women’s basketball team and the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah played an aggressive, physical game on Saturday (Jan. 26) at Reese Court, but the Eagles made a season-high 25-of-26 free throws to knock off Southern Utah, 79-70.
With the win, EWU improves to 11-8 on the year and 7-3 in Big Sky play, maintaining its hold on third place in the league standings. The Eagles are now just one game behind conference leaders Montana (8-2) and Montana State (8-2), which Eastern faces next weekend in a big road trip to the Treasure State.
The Thunderbirds fall to 10-9 in the 2012-13 campaign and 4-5 in league play, which puts them is seventh place.
Sophomore Lexie Nelson accounted for half of EWU’s season-high 25 free throws, as the 5-6 guard converted all 12 of her attempts from the charity stripe. With the perfect 12-of-12 performance, Nelson bettered a 21-year old school record held by Lisa Graber, who made 11-of-11 against Northern Arizona on Feb. 22, 1992.
“Lexie was aggressive and did a great job today,” said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. “She is a player that puts in the time. When you shoot as many free throws as she does every day of her life, you deserve to go 12-for-12.”
After a slow start that saw the Eagles score just seven points in the first 11 minutes of the game, EWU fed off the energy from the home crowd, finding some much-needed offense. The Eagles closed out the first half on a 21-9 run to enjoy a 41-35 lead at the break. Eastern is 10-2 this year when leading or tied at the half.
Eastern never relinquished its lead in the second half, but the Thunderbirds threatened most of the way. With less than six minutes remaining in the game, SUU had cut the deficit to just three points at 62-59. But a 3-pointer from Nelson sparked a 12-4 run for EWU, as the home team earned its largest lead of the game of 74-63 with less than three minutes remaining.
During the run, Nelson hit two 3-pointers and sophomore Melissa Williams made two field goals. Up until that point, Nelson was 1-of-8 from the floor and Williams was 0-of-3.
Williams was playing in her first game in two weeks after suffering a knee injury at Sacramento State on Jan. 12.
“Melissa was critical for us today,” said Schuller. “With Laura [Hughes] out, and Carrie [Ojeda] in foul trouble, it was big for her to come in and play at a high level. And that’s a hard thing to do - having been off for two weeks not doing anything. She played tough and made some big shots to extend our lead down the stretch.”
Southern Utah scored five unanswered points in the final two minutes, but with 54 ticks left on the clock, redshirt-freshman Hayley Hodgins buried a three from the corner to seal the victory for EWU.
Nelson finished with 21 points - just two shy of her career high. Along with her perfect 12-of-12 effort at the free-throw line, she hit 3-of-4 shots from beyond the arc.
Sophomore Kylie Huerta recorded 12 points for the Eagles, to go along with a career-high nine assists.
Hodgins and junior Aubrey Ashenfelter had nine points apiece, while freshmen Kayleigh Ryan and Hanna Mack both added a career-high six points.
There were a total of 43 fouls called in the game - a season high in Eastern’s 2012-13 campaign. Southern Utah was whistled for 24, while EWU committed 19.
“Southern Utah is an aggressive team, and they play extremely hard,” said Schuller. “The level of physicality changes from game to game in our conference, so sometimes you have to get used to playing at a different level. It took us some time to adjust, but once we did, we became a little more aggressive and started making things happen.”
The Thunderbirds out-rebounded Eastern, 44-25, and held a 34-14 advantage in points in the paint. But the Eagles scored 24 points off turnovers, and shot a season-high 57.1 percent from the 3-point line.
Eastern currently ranks No. 1 in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage, and is among the top 30 nationally.
Eastern will now begin preparations for the biggest road trip of the season up to this point. EWU takes on Montana State Thursday (Jan. 31) in Bozeman, before a meeting with the Lady Griz on Saturday (Feb. 2) in Missoula.