Playing in its first overtime game in more than two years, the Eastern Washington University women’s basketball team overcame a slow start at Reese Court to fight its way to a dramatic 67-61 victory over the Bengals of Idaho State on Thursday (March 7) in Cheney, Wash.
With the win, EWU (17-11, 13-6 Big Sky) solidifies the No. 3-seed in the 2013 Big Sky Conference tournament, which will be held in Missoula, Mont. With their win tonight against Northern Arizona, coupled with a Northern Colorado loss at Southern Utah, the Lady Griz have won the 2013 Big Sky regular-season title.
Eastern Washington will face No. 6-seed Montana State in the quarterfinal round, but the exact day of that game depends on what happens Saturday on the men’s side. If the Montana men also end up winning the regular-season title, and therefore the right to host the tourney, the women’s quarterfinal games will be held Wednesday, March 13. If Weber State ends up taking the crown, the women’s quarterfinals from Missoula will go on as originally scheduled for Thursday, March 14. Either way, Eastern’s game against the Bobcats will take place at 4:30 p.m. Pacific time.
After a sluggish first half that saw EWU score just 18 points on 23 percent shooting from the floor, the Eagles picked up the intensity in the second half and forced the first overtime game for EWU since 2011. Big plays down the stretch by several different players enabled the Eags to capture the regular-season sweep of ISU - their first since 2003.
“We battled,” said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. “Idaho State is as tough as they come, and they are a great basketball team. We had to work hard for every point, and we had to work hard on every defensive possession. Every time the ball went up, it was a battle for the boards. This was just a battle for the ages.”
With 28 seconds remaining in regulation, and a 52-51 advantage, Idaho State earned a trip to the free-throw line with a chance to push it to three. But ISU’s senior guard Kaela Oakes made just 1-of-2 shots, alleviating a bit of the pressure for EWU. Schuller called a quick timeout to draw up a play, and after 13 seconds rolled off the shot clock, the Eagles found redshirt-freshman Hayley Hodgins, who knocked down a contested mid-range jumper to tie the game 53-53 with just nine ticks remaining.
EWU had an opportunity to win it in regulation after Idaho State turned the ball over on a sloppy inbounds pass, but the last-second shot attempt by sophomore guard Kylie Huerta was off the mark, resulting in overtime.
Idaho State made the first basket of the overtime period, and hit 4-of-4 free throws within the first three minutes, but EWU's sophomore guard Lexie Nelson answered every single push by the Bengals, as hit three big field goals to keep her team alive. At the 2:52-mark, Nelson drained a 3-pointer to give EWU a 60-57 advantage, and then she knocked down a jumper inside the arc to put the Eags up by three again (62-59) with 1:45 remaining.
With 30 seconds left in OT, EWU was up by just one point at 62-61. Hodgins earned a trip to the free throw line with a chance to add to that lead, which she did with a make on her first attempt. But the redshirt-freshman missed the second one, but in heads up play, junior Aubrey Ashenfelter had gained position and was able to coral the offensive board.
Huerta went on to make 4-of-4 free throws in the final 20 seconds to put the game out of reach for the visiting Bengals.
“Hayley hit some big shots, Lexie made some great things happen and hit a ton of big shots, and Aubrey was huge for us,” said Schuller. “Aubrey is a player that doesn’t get nearly the amount of credit she deserves. She is such a cerebral basketball player, and she keeps us together on the floor.”
Eastern trailed by eight points at halftime after making just 5-of-22 shots in the opening period. The Eagles were also out-rebounded in the first half, 21-13, while the Bengals earned 12-4 advantage in points in the paint.
“I thought Idaho State kicked our butts in the first half in terms of toughness,” said Schuller. “At halftime, I called our team out for how much tougher Idaho State was than we were. Every aspect of the game showed that in the first half. As a coach, you wonder if your team is going to believe it, or if they’re going to fight back and prove you wrong. I was glad the strategy worked, because they proved me wrong. We gutted this game out.”
Through the second half and overtime, the Eagles out-rebounded the Bengals 31-14 and shot 41 percent from the field.
Nelson finished with a career-high 24 points on a 7-of-10 effort from the floor and a perfect 8-of-8 at the charity stripe. She also grabbed a career-high eight rebounds.
As a team, the Eagles converted a season-high 27 free throws on a season-high 33 attempts. Idaho State made just 17-of-25 at the line, and only converted 11-of-20 in the final 25 minutes.
Senior Carrie Ojeda had 14 points, 10 of which came in the second half. Ashenfelter finished with 10 points and team-high nine rebounds, while also contributing three assists, two blocks and one steal.
Hodgins had nine points, and a career-high tying seven boards, while Huerta finished with six points and five assists without a single turnover.
The Eagles will host Weber State on Saturday (March 9) in the regular-season finale at Reese Court. Prior to tipoff, EWU will honor its three seniors in Carrie Ojeda, Courtney Nolen and Jordan Schoening - all of whom were members of EWU's 2010 Big Sky Championship team.