It was a heartbreaking way to end Eastern Washington University's attempt at making history with a statement to the rest of the league.
Seeking its first Big Sky Conference men's basketball road sweep in 10 years and the first in the league this season, North Dakota senior Troy Huff had a rebound basket at the buzzer to give second-place North Dakota a 69-67 victory over the Eagles on UND's Senior Day Saturday (March 1) in Grand Forks, N.D.
The game was a thriller to the very end, and featured a season-high 11 ties for EWU and three lead changes. En route to a combined 35 points and 26 rebounds, sophomore Venky Jois and junior Martin Seiferth both contributed double-doubles for a team playing without starting point guard Drew Brandon, who missed the game with a hand injury suffered in EWU's previous game.
Eastern's 13 missed free throws and 16 turnovers offset EWU's 49 percent shooting from the field and a 40-33 rebounding edge. Eastern trailed by 66-59 with 2:13 to play, but rallied to knot the score at 67 on a 3-pointer by Tyler Harvey with 15.5 seconds remaining.
"It was a great basketball game and we played through a lot of adversity," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford of the afternoon road game. "We had to overcome Drew's injury and played an emotion-filled team in North Dakota, plus we had a quick turnaround from playing on Thursday. Our players had it right there until the final buzzer.
"I wish we could have gotten it to overtime because I thought we had grabbed momentum," he added.
The Eagles were not only trying for the school's first road sweep since the 2003-04 school year, but were also trying for the first road sweep by any team in the league this season. A year ago, late-season home losses to UND and Northern Colorado were the biggest blows in keeping EWU out of the postseason.
"What a game, what a game," Hayford said. "I like where our team is going. No team in the Big Sky has a road sweep and this is the toughest trip, and we took it all the way down to .3 seconds."
Despite the loss, Eastern returns home for its final two league games of the season – Idaho State on Thursday (March 6) and Weber State on Saturday (March 8) -- in control of its own destiny in the hunt for one of seven berths in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. The Eagles entered action Saturday in a four-way tie for fifth in the league, and are now 9-9 in the Big Sky and 14-15 overall.
North Dakota, which defeated Portland State 83-73 on Thursday and completed a season sweep over the Eagles, is now in second place at 11-7 in the league and 14-14 overall.
"We're getting better and we're growing, and we're coming back home 9-9," said Hayford. "We'll put all of our attention now to Idaho State. I don't know if we could have played any better with all the adversity and without our point guard. I'm proud of how our team took this trip on."
For the second time this season, North Dakota neutralized Harvey, the Big Sky scoring leader (22.1 per game) who entered the game ranked in the top 10 in NCAA Division I in three categories for scoring and 3-point shooting. He finished with just 11 points, making 5-of-15 shots from the field, including 1-of-6 3-point attempts.
But Harvey also finished with six assists and four rebounds, with Jois finishing the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting from the field. Seiferth made 5-of-6 shots and finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds. Jois also had two blocked shots and three steals, and Seiferth had four blocks and a pair of thefts.
Jois, who entered the game ranked 65th in NCAA Division I with eight double-doubles this season, had his ninth of the year and 18th in his career. For Seiferth, it was his fourth double-double this season and eighth of his career.
Freshman Ognjen Miljkovic added 13 points for EWU on 4-of-7 shooting. However, Eastern's best free throw shooters are its guards, and EWU's inside players took the majority of shots en route to a 12-of-25 performance.
"We wanted to go inside and we know that is going to affect our free throw shooting a little bit," said Hayford. "But we lose a one-possession game and shoot 48 percent from the free line. It's hard when you lose a two-point game and get hurt that much at the free throw line."
Eastern led by six in the first half and one at halftime, but went a 14-minute stretch spanning halftime with just three field goals to fall behind 41-32. After Harvey's triple knotted the game, the Eagles forced UND's Jamal Webb into a contested 3-point shot, only to have Huff gather in the rebound for the game-winner.
"In the timeout we used to set our defense, we talked that the possession would be about getting the rebound," explained Hayford. "We forced them into a really bad shot, but one of the best players in the league made a big-time play on his senior night."
The Eagles were coming off an impressive 80-66 victory at Northern Colorado on Thursday (Feb. 27), which entered the week in sole possession of second in the league. That victory was EWU's sixth win in its last eight games – equaling the school's best February record in 12 seasons.
As a result, the Eagles were in position for the team's first Big Sky road sweep since the 2003-04 season when the Eagles swept Montana and Montana State late in the year. Coupled with EWU's win at Southern Utah on Feb. 22, the last time the Eagles have won two road games in a row in the same season came in 2003-04 when the Eagles opened the league season with five-straight league road wins en route to the league title.
North Dakota handed EWU a 73-61 home loss on Jan. 30, a game in which Harvey was held to six points on 3-of-12 shooting from the field and 1-of-8 3-point attempts. He responded with 38 points and a school record 10 treys two days later against Northern Colorado, then had 31 points and seven 3-pointers in the rematch on Thursday (Feb. 27) to complete a season sweep over the Bears and hand UNC its first home loss in 14 outings this season.
Harvey set the school's single season record for 3-pointers made on Thursday, giving him 104 for the season to eclipse the previous record of 103 set by Shannon Taylor in the 1998-99 season. Now with 105, Harvey is tied for second in Big Sky Conference history (Cory Schwab, Northern Arizona, 2000-01) and 19 behind the league record of 124 (Stephen Sir, Northern Arizona, 2006-07).
Harvey entered the game ranked in the top 10 nationally in three categories, and his combined ranking of 10th in 3-pointers per game (4th, 3.71) and 3-point shooting percentage (6th, 46.0) lead NCAA Division I. His 22.1 scoring average ranked 10th.