POCATELLO, Idaho - There is no better way to start conference play than with a road sweep, especially when one of the wins is against the defending Big Sky regular-season and tournament champion.
For the first time since 2003, the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team escaped Pocatello, Idaho with a victory. The Eagles downed Idaho State, 61-55, on Saturday (Dec. 22) at Reed Gym to improve to 2-0 in the 2012-13 Big Sky season, and 5-5 overall.
EWU defeated Weber State on Thursday in its conference opener, which was Eastern's ninth-straight victory over the Wildcats. With the win Saturday in Pocatello, EWU snapped a five-game losing skid against the Bengals that dated back to Jan. 22, 2010.
"It's pretty huge anytime you can win on the road in this league," said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. "And it feels great to get a win here [Pocatello], because we haven't in a long time. But like we've talked about all year, we have a 20-game grind this year in the Big Sky. We are one step closer now, but there are still 18 games to go. It was a hard-fought, well-earned win, and I'm glad the team can head home now and enjoy some time with their families, but we'll be back next week to get to work because there is a lot of basketball left to be played."
Following a short Christmas break, the Eagles will return to Reese Court to host Warner Pacific on Dec. 29, before facing Montana and Montana State the following week in Cheney.
One of the toughest places to play in the Big Sky, the Eagles handled the pressure of Reed Gym extremely well on Saturday afternoon.
After Idaho State took an early 9-5 lead, EWU turned it on with a 17-4 run over the next 10 minutes. Junior Aubrey Ashenfelter got it started with a 3-pointer at the 16:19-mark, and then five different Eagles hit at least one shot during the surge, which gave EWU a 22-13 advantage with six minutes left in the half.
The Bengals managed to pull within in four, but sophomore point guard Kylie Huerta nailed two long-range shots before the end of the period to give Eastern an 11-point edge at intermission.
Huerta, who stands a just five-foot-one, finished the game with a career-high 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting, while adding four assists and four rebounds in a season-high 33 minutes on the floor. She hit 2-of-3 shots from beyond the arc, and converted all three of her attempts from the charity stripe. She had come into the game averaging 3.4 points.
"Kylie gave us a great boost offensively in the first half," said Schuller. "She is so unselfish, and is always thinking ‘pass first, pass first.' But I kind of got on her a little bit, telling her to look to shoot the ball more because she shoots it well, and she knows how to finish on the drive. I'm glad she listened."
Eastern shot 58 percent from the field in the first half, including a 4-of-7 effort from downtown. The Eagles cooled off a bit in the second, converting just 8-of-27 field goal attempts, but their work on the defensive end made up for it.
Idaho State was held to 28.6 percent shooting in the game - the worst offensive output by any EWU opponent this season. The Bengals made just one of their 18 attempts from beyond the arc, and hit just six total field goals in the second half.
"I was concerned in the second half because we weren't great offensively," said Schuller. "We had a ton of good looks, but just weren't knocking them down. But the key for us was getting stops on the other end. That allowed us to keep our lead. It would have been a little scarier if they [Idaho State] had been able to cut into that early."
Eastern led by as many as 15 in the second half after senior Carrie Ojeda converted a layup at 13:14 to make it 43-28. The Bengals managed to pull within six points thanks to some solid free-throw shooting, but that was the closest they came, as EWU held on for the win.
Along with Huerta, sophomore Lexie Nelson eclipsed double-digits, as she has done in nine of 10 games this season. She finished with 13 points, four rebounds and two assists. Ojeda had 11 points, while Ashenfelter chipped in seven.
Although only scoring two points for the Eags, sophomore Melissa Williams led the team on the glass once again with six rebounds.