Although they were a made 3-pointer short, it was a thrilling way to end the regular season for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team.
The Eagles rallied from an 18-point deficit in the second half, but missed two chances to tie or take the lead in the final seconds Saturday (March 8) in an 82-78 loss to Big Sky Conference regular season champion Weber State at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Junior point guard Drew Brandon had a potential game-tying shot blocked with seven seconds left, but got the rebound and fed Parker Kelly for an open 3-pointer that was just off the mark. The Wildcats closed the victory with two free throws with 0.6 seconds remaining, and put EWU’s postseason chances in limbo.
“We had a look to tie it, and then we had a look to win it,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford.
“Parker’s was a great look -- it just went in and out. We were that close to one of the greatest comebacks in college basketball. I know we were down 18, but our players showed tremendous fight.
“It was a great basketball game,” he added. “Everyone got their money’s worth today. It was just that the right team didn’t win.”
A win would have secured EWU a berth in the Big Sky Conference Tournament, which will be hosted by the Wildcats March 13-15 in Ogden, Utah. But now, the Eagles must hope for a Montana State win at Sacramento State or a Southern Utah victory at home against Northern Colorado to advance. Those games both take place later Saturday.
Eastern finished the league season 10-10 and is 15-16 overall, while Weber State finished the regular season 14-6 and 17-11 overall. But WSU had lost four of its last six heading into Saturday’s game at EWU.
Kelly scored 20 points for the Eagles and made both of his 3-pointers until his final miss. Big Sky Conference leading scorer Tyler Harvey scored 24 points and had four steals, but he was 0-of-6 from the 3-point line in only the second game this season he has not made a 3-pointer. He made 6-of-18 shots overall.
“Give Tyler six looks any other game in his career, and he will make them,” said Hayford. “Credit their defense.”
Freshman Ognjen Miljkovic came off the bench to score 11 points, and Venky Jois finished with eight points, seven rebounds and three assists.
In a battle of the league’s top offense (Eastern) versus the top defense (Weber State), the defense of the Wildcats prevailed. They held the Eagles to 39 percent shooting from the field, and just 3-of-15 from the 3-point arc (20 percent). Weber State, led by Davion Berry’s 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds, made 49 percent from the field and sank 10-of-21 3-pointers.
“You look at them and say, ‘there is a good team and they are the conference champion,’” praised Hayford. “They had a great inside game, they had a great outside game and they made some great threes.”
The Eagles forced 16 Weber State turnovers and had a season low six turnovers themselves. Seven of those Wildcat turnovers came after Weber State had opened up its 18-point advantage.
“The one place we were able to be better than them was when we turned up the pressure and forced 10 more turnovers than we committed, and, we took care of the ball,” said Hayford. “That is what made it a game at the end. I love that my guys had no quit -- I really love that. Weber State is a good team, and you have to give them credit.”
Eastern jumped out to a 9-0 lead, but Weber State answered with a 23-2 run to take a 23-11 advantage with 9:54 left in the first half. Eastern, though, followed with a 19-6 run to regain a 30-29 lead with 3:27remaining. However, the Wildcats countered with a big run of its own, scoring the last 11 points of the half and taking a 43-32 lead at intermission.
Weber State gradually built a 61-43 lead at the 10:58 mark of the second half, and at that time Eastern made just 32 percent of its shots and only 17 percent from the 3-point arc. Harvey at that point was 2-of-12, and Weber State had already made nine 3-pointers.
But EWU used a full-court press to go on a 13-4 run and pulled within 73-66 with 3:49 remaining. Weber State made their last field goal of the game at the 3:06 mark to regain a 10-point lead, but that’s when EWU made its final surge.
Eastern ended the game on a 10-2 run, with Kelly pulling EWU to within 80-78 with 48 ticks left. A missed 3-pointer by Weber State and a rebound by Brandon set the table for EWU’s final two shots.