In a nutshell, the Eagles were once again close. And, as usual, shorthanded.
Eliminated from postseason contention earlier in the day, the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team battled Weber State tooth-and-nail before falling 65-57 to the Wildcats Saturday (March 9) at the Dee Events Center.
In a microcosm to the entire season for the Eagles, center Martin Seiferth was lost early in the game with a hip pointer, but Eastern rallied behind its youth. The Eagles pulled to within one with 6:05 left, but Weber State’s Scott Bamforth scored 10 points in the last 5:52 to put the dagger in EWU’s upset attempt.
Eastern redshirt freshman Tyler Harvey led the Eagles with 17 points, eight rebounds and a pair of assists. True freshman Venky Jois added 10 points and nine rebounds, and sophomore Parker Kelly chipped in nine points.
For a variety of reasons – mostly because of injuries – Eastern used 14 different starting lineups in the 2012 season. But the one constant was the continued development of young players, including six freshmen/sophomores who each started at least three games with a collective total of 97 starts this season (sophomores Parker Kelly and Martin Seiferth, redshirt freshman Tyler Harvey, and true freshmen Venky Jois, Thomas Reuter and Daniel Hill).
“It just shows how far we’ve grown,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. “I felt like we got better every week, and we played one of our best games of the season against Weber State. So I’m really, really proud of our team.”
The Eagles finished the season 10-21 overall and 7-13 in the league, as the careers came to an end for a quartet of seniors – Jeffrey Forbes, Kevin Winford, Collin Chiverton and Jordan Hickert. Hickert closed his career with five points, Chiverton had six and Forbes ended his school-record 121-game career with two points and a pair of rebounds. Winford did not play because of the compartment syndrome injury in his shin that limited him to two minutes of action in EWU’s final six games of the season.
Weber State won for the 11th-straight time, and haven’t lost since losing at Montana 76-74 on Jan. 26. The Wildcats improved to 18-2 in league games and 24-5 overall, and won its 19th-straight Big Sky home game. Back on Dec. 20 in Cheney, the Eagles fell 74-53 to the Wildcats.
The Wildcats had entered the day with hopes of winning the regular season title and hosting the seven-team Big Sky Conference Tournament March 14-16. But a win by Montana State earlier Saturday meant the tournament will be hosted by Montana.
Eastern hoped to be a part of that tournament, but MSU’s win and a loss by Southern Utah earlier in the day eliminated the Eagles, regardless of Saturday’s outcome in Ogden. Eastern was trying for its third-straight tournament berth, and 13th in 26 years as a member of the Big Sky Conference, with 12 previous appearances (1990, 98, 99, 2000, 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 11, 12).
Eastern took its only lead of the game at 2-0, but Weber State opened a 23-12 advantage. A 6-0 Eastern run cut the lead to four, and the Wildcats led by just 35-30 at halftime.
The Wildcats led by as many as eight points before the Eagles put together a trio of short runs to pull within 51-50 on a dunk by Hickert at the 6:05 mark. But Bamforth scored five-straight points to regain a six-point lead. Then, his trey with 57 seconds to play was the big blow, as EWU didn’t score after that and two WSU free throws closed out the scoring.
“That’s what great players do – he came up big down the stretch,” said Hayford. “They were all contested shots, so give Bamforth credit. That’s why he deserves all the honors and recognition he gets. He was the difference maker down the stretch.”
The Eagles faced a Weber State team ranked third nationally in three-point field goal defense (.282), and the Eagles made just 24 percent (5-of-21). Eastern made only 35 percent overall, and was hurt by the more than 35 minute absence of the 6-foot-10 Seiferth . In the previous six games, he was averaging 12.0 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.3 blocked shots per game, while making 64 percent of his shots.
“Credit Weber State’s defense,” said Hayford. “We did everything we could to try to manufacture baskets. I thought we executed a really, really good game plan. To hold the nation’s top shooting team to 40 percent showed how far we’ve grown defensively.”
Eastern’s defense was up to the task against one of the nation’s top offensive teams, holding the Wildcats to 40 percent shooting, including 40 percent from the 3-point stripe (6-of-15). The Wildcats went into the game leading the nation in 3-point field goal percentage offensively (.434) and in field goal percentage overall (.512), and was also fifth in scoring margin (+14.5).
Eastern was out-rebounded 42-34, but the Wildcats entered with a rebound margin of +6.3 per game that led the Big Sky and ranked 22nd nationally. Eastern held the Wildcats to 52 shots from the field.
“The fewer shots in the game, the fewer rebound wars we would have to fight in,” explained Hayford. “And we were able to do that without Martin not being able to play most of the night.
“We knew they were going to take away our guys from the 3-point line,” he added. “Our guys did a great job of getting the ball to the rim, but they just didn’t fall. If our numbers are a little bit higher, we win the game.”
The Eagles went into the game ranked 11th in NCAA Division I with an average of 8.6 treys per game. Eastern also had just two blocked shots, giving them 176 blocked shots for the season (a 5.8 average entering the game to rank 11th nationally). The Eagles finished the season three away from the Big Sky Conference record of 179 set by Idaho State in the 2005-06 season.