Junior guard Jeffrey Forbes was up to the task. So was senior point guard Cliff Colimon. And ditto for senior forward Laron Griffin.
Idaho State stole a page from EWU’s book, but Eastern Washington University’s trio of players all scored at least 21 points to lead the Eagles to an 81-75 victory over the Bengals in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Men’s Basketball Championship Saturday (March 3) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
“It is a great win and it is a great day to be an Eagle,” said first-year head coach Jim Hayford. “I’m very proud of our team.”
Forbes had a season-high 21 points, and had a steal and assist on a key basket with 37 seconds to play as the Eagles advanced to the semifinals on Tuesday (March 6) against either Montana (15-1, 23-6) or Weber State (14-2, 23-5) in Missoula, Mont. Eastern improved to 15-16 on the season with its third victory in as many tries against ISU, while the Bengals ended their season 9-21.
Griffin had a career-high 21 points and had 11 rebounds for his sixth career double-double. Colimon, who two days earlier was selected as first team All-Big Sky Conference selection, finished with 22 points, seven assists, two steals and four rebounds.
The Eagles had their second-best shooting night of the season at 52.8 percent, led by Griffin (8-of-12), Forbes (8-of-12) and Colimon (8-of-13). Eastern is now 9-0 this season when it makes at least 45 percent of its shots from the floor.
The fourth-seeded Eagles survived a 3-point onslaught by the fifth-seeded Bengals, who made 14 out of a tournament record 33 3-point attempts. Kenny McGowan hit five 3-pointers on a record 19 attempts, and finished with 28 points. Melvin Morgan had six treys and finished with 22.
“We played one of our finest offensive games of the year,” said Hayford. “We shot really good percentages and we had a good mix of going inside and outside. Jeff Forbes stepped up and had a great night -- he is a winning player. Offensively he scored 21 points, but he also was the guy guarding McGowen, who got off 28 shots. People might look at that and say McGowen had 28 points, but I look at that and say Forbes held him to 30 percent field goal shooting (9-of-28 for 32 percent).’’
And for only the fourth time this season, Eastern had more turnovers than its opponent. Idaho State had 12 compared to 14 for the Eagles, with the Bengals turning those miscues into 22 points. Eastern entered the game ranked fifth in NCAA Division in 3-pointers per game (9.1) and 10th in turnover margin (+4.2 per game).
“They were making some really deep, tough looks,” said Hayford. “And when you are able to still win when stuff like that is happening, then good for us. I think that both teams left it all out on the floor -- that’s to be expected. My hat is off to Idaho State. They played really well, and it is tough to beat a team three times in a season.”
The Eagles were hosting their first postseason playoff game in six years, the first since March 4, 2006 when the Eagles knocked off Portland State in Cheney -- by the same 81-75 score as the ISU game. Rodney Stuckey scored 38 points in that game – the second-most in the career of the current Detroit Piston and the sixth-best performance in school history.
Eastern had an seven-point lead early in the second half, but Idaho State came back and led by six with 9:02 to play. Eastern followed with a 10-0 run – on a pair baskets by Griffin and 3-pointers by Forbes and Colimon – to regain a 65-61 lead.
But the Bengals tied it before EWU took the lead for good on a basket by Griffin at the 4:33 mark. However, ISU had a chance to tie or take the lead when Forbes snatched the ball from Morgan and fed teammate Kevin Winford for a layin and a four-point advantage. A pair of free throws by Parker Kelly, one by Colimon and a dunk by Griffin on an assist from Winford closed out the win for EWU.
“I think our team knows how to play the same when we’re up six and when we’re down six,” added Hayford. “Getting some important stops was key -- it helped us get some separation. The moment of the game was Jeff Forbes getting that steal and feeding Winford for the easy layup.”
The Eagles have won the last six games in the series, and Eastern has also won the last 10 meetings in Cheney, dating back to a 65-63 Bengal win at EWU on March 1, 2003.
A 77-64 victory over the Bengals on Feb. 28 clinched the No. 4 seed in the Big Sky Conference Championship for the Eagles, who finished the regular season 8-8 in the Big Sky and 14-16 overall. The win completed a season sweep in the league for the Eagles versus ISU, having defeated the Bengals in Pocatello 85-78 on Feb. 23.
Eastern will play in the semifinals on March 6 against either Montana (15-1, 23-6) or Weber State (14-2, 23-5) in Missoula, Mont. The Grizzlies wrapped-up the regular season league title on Feb. 28 with a 66-51 over the Wildcats in Missoula, Mont. Portland State (10-6, 16-13) finished third and will host the Bobcats in Saturday’s other quarterfinal game. The championship game in the tournament is March 7 at 6 p.m. Pacific time and will be televised on ESPN2.
The Eagles are making their 12th appearance in the Big Sky Conference Tournament, and second-straight after a string of four-straight misses.
Now 2-4 in six quarterfinal games, Eastern has advanced to the Big Sky semifinals on seven occasions (record of 5-2) and the championship game five times. Eastern’s only league title came in 2004 when they beat Northern Arizona 71-59, as EWU made its first and only NCAA Tournament appearance.