Although it trailed from start to finish, the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team put forth a 36-minute fight against the league leaders.
But Weber State didn’t wilt in the second half, as the Eagles fell 84-75 Saturday (Feb. 11) at the Dee Events Center in Ogden, Utah, in a Big Sky Conference game.
The Wildcats jumped out to leads of 8-0, 14-3 and 16-5, but EWU rallied to keep most of the rest of the game in single digits. Eastern pulled to within two early in the second half, and five points on several occasions after that, but couldn’t get over the hump.
Weber State, led by the 22 points of Damian Lillard, made 32-of-35 free throws for a blistering 91 percent. Entering the game, Lillard led NCAA Division I in scoring (25.2 per game) and the Wildcats lead in free throw percentage (.803).
“What I told our team is that I wanted to be proud of them after the game, and I am proud of them,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. “In the second half we held them to 27 percent shooting from the field and we really played tough. If we keep getting that kind of effort the rest of the season we’re going to be alright. It’s hard to beat any team when they make 91 percent of their free throws and get that many of them.”
“It was a really good ballgame,” he added. “They were just the better team.”
True freshman Parker Kelly, a 2012 graduate of Gonzaga Prep High School in Spokane, Wash., poured in a career-high 17 points as EWU made 13-of-30 3-point attempts. Senior point guard Cliff Colimon, who had a career-high 27 points last year in Ogden, had 20 second-half points for EWU.
The Eagles held Weber State to 27 percent shooting from the field in the second half, but the Wildcats made 27-of-29 free throws after intermission. Eastern out-shot Weber State in the game 39 percent to 38 percent, but was out-rebounded 44-24 and two more turnovers than the Wildcats. But EWU’s slow start was its biggest problem.
“We were getting great shots, we just had put the ball in the basket,” said Hayford of the sluggish beginning. “It was a long game and we were going to make those shots. The last 36 minutes we played toe-to-toe with the best team in the league in their gym.”
Despite the loss and Northern Colorado’s 77-64 victory over Montana State on Saturday, Eastern remained in sixth in the Big Sky standings with a 5-7 record in the league and 11-14 overall. Entering the night, Eastern had a chance to move into third in a jam-packed league race.
Weber State, which improved to 14-0 at home, improved to 12-1 in the league and 20-4 overall. Earlier this season, the Wildcats beat EWU in Cheney by a 76-69 score on Jan. 5. The Wildcats are tied atop the standings at 12-1, but just two games separate third through seventh place, with Sacramento State winning four of their last five and sitting in eighth at 4-9.
With a better road record (3-3) than home mark (2-4) thus far, the Eagles are in the midst of the race for one of six berths in the Big Sky Conference Tournament that starts on March 3. Eastern hosts Northern Colorado (Feb. 15), plays at Idaho State (Feb. 23) and Portland State (Feb. 25), and then ends the regular season at home versus Idaho State (Feb. 28). Eastern also plays UC Irvine in a ESPN BracketBusters game on Feb. 18.
“They are disappointed they lost,” Hayford said of his players. “They understood they had a chance going into this game of moving into third place. A loss and we stay barely in sixth place by a half-game. We have a big game on our hands Wednesday against Northern Colorado and I expect our players to be really focused. We played Weber State as tough as anybody has in their building this year. We beat them over the last 30 minutes, but in the first 10 minutes they were able to implement their gameplan more than ours.”
Weber State led at intermission 41-30, but Colimon hit a pair of 3-pointers and Kelly hit one to cut the lead to 41-39. The Wildcats followed with an 11-3 run, but Eastern cut the lead to five on five occasions after that. The last came with 2:39 to play, then Weber State clinched the win by making all eight of its free throws in the final 57 seconds.
Kelly, whose previous high was 12 on two occasions, made 6-of-10 shots from the field, including 5-of-8 from the 3-point arc.
“We had good bench production,” said Hayford. “Parker Kelly played a heckuva basketball game -- I’m so proud of him.”
Colimon was scoreless in the first half, but finished the game making 6-of-12 shots. He sank 4-of-7 treys and all four of his free throws, and also had a career-high nine rebounds and added four assists.
“Colimon played like a warrior and we were really happy with his effort,” praised Hayford. “He came out with nine rebounds, and that doesn’t go unnoticed by me.”
Last year, Eastern’s 2010-11 season ended with a 79-70 loss at Weber State in the quarterfinal round of the Big Sky Tournament. That came just three days after the Eagles stunned WSU at home 75-59 to end the regular season, marking just the fourth victory in 29 tries all-time in Ogden for Eastern. It was also one of just two road wins in 16 attempts in the 2010-11 season for EWU, which snapped a five-game losing streak to WSU.