CHENEY, Wash. - The hole they dug wasn't insurmountable, but the Eagles just couldn't climb all the way out.
The Eastern Washington University men's basketball team rallied from an early 14-point deficit, but was never able to take the lead and lost a Big Sky Conference game to North Dakota 78-74 Saturday (March 2) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.VIDEO: Eagles can't complete the rally, fall to North Dakota 78-74
Eastern had chances to tie or take the lead in the final 1 1/2 minutes, but could never completely overcome North Dakota's early 24-10 advantage. A layup attempt that was deflected and went in with 25 seconds to play were the key points down the stretch for UND.
"It was another outstanding basketball game like Thursday night," said Hayford, whose team lost to Northern Colorado two days earlier in overtime, 88-80. "Unfortunately, our opponent was one point better. We grinded to get there, but I'm really heartbroken for our players."
The loss seriously damaged Eastern's postseason hopes with two games to play, and spoiled outstanding performances by sophomore Martin Seiferth and freshman redshirt Tyler Harvey. Seiferth had his fourth double-double of the season with 14 points, 14 rebounds, seven blocked shots and a pair of steals. Harvey had 21 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three steals.
"You can tell we're excited about building on Martin for the future," said Hayford of Seiferth, who had 21 rebounds and 11 points one game earlier in an 88-80 overtime loss to Northern Colorado. "Tyler had 21 points with eight assists, so we're obviously excited about that performance and the future he has. And Thomas Reuter really stepped up and made some big plays in the last few minutes."
Eagle senior Jeffrey Forbes made history on Senior Day at EWU, as he equaled the school record for career games played with 119. Already with a school-record 105 games started in his career, Forbes is now tied with Marc Axton (2002-05) with 119. Eastern honored four players taking part in the final game of their careers at Reese Court – Forbes, Kevin Winford, Collin Chiverton and Jordan Hickert.
"We would have liked to have a storybook ending for the seniors, but unfortunately it didn't happen that way," said Hayford. "We are going to keep working hard so that in the future we're the team that is one possession better in these big games."
Winford played for the first time since having emergency compartment syndrome surgery on his shin following EWU's win over Southern Utah on Feb. 16. However, he played just three seconds before departing the 112th game he played in his career.
Chiverton scored 14 points in his final game at Reese Court, and Forbes finished with a pair of points, four rebounds, and the 119th steal of his career. Hickert scored three points.
"I feel disappointment for the seniors – I really wanted them to win and want them to get into the Big Sky Tournament," said Hayford. "On the positive side, 60-80 percent of our playing time is by underclassmen. So we've looked at it as a season of investment, and we got a lot of playing time for a lot of young players."
North Dakota junior Troy Huff poured in a career-high 31 points, including 24 in the first half alone. He entered the game with an 18.7 scoring average (19.2 in league games).
"He's one of the premier players in the league, and will probably be the leading preseason candidate for player of the year next year," praised Hayford. "We saw a taste why. In the second half we put Jeffrey on him, and even though he gave up six inches, he did a great job shadowing him. Give credit to Jeffrey for a great defensive job on him in the second half."
Eastern is still alive for one of seven berths in the Big Sky Conference Tournament, but the Eagles must win its final two games to even have a chance, then needs lots of help. Eastern closes the season with road games at Idaho State on March 7 and Weber State on March 9. The Big Sky Conference Tournament takes place March 14-16 at the site of the regular season champion.
The Eagles are 6-12 in the Big Sky Conference and 9-20, while North Dakota solidified its hold on third in the conference standings with an 11-8 record, and is 14-15 overall. Earlier this season, Eastern lost on the road at UND 65-47.
Eastern out-shot UND 47 percent to 45 percent, but the Eagles had six more turnovers and four less offensive rebounds. The Eagles made 8-of-24 3-point shots in the game, and sank 59 percent of its shots in the second half – including 17-of-25 from inside the arc.
"We battled – we really, really battled," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "We had great efficiency in the second half and shot 59 percent. That showed a lot of growth in our team, because it wasn't because we were shooting 3-pointers well. We were getting other things done."
Huff poured in North Dakota's first 15 points – and 20 of his team's first 22 -- in helping UND to an early 22-8 lead. A 14-0 North Dakota run helped open the 14-point cushion as EWU went 3:42 without scoring.
Eastern gradually cut the led to six and UND led 38-31 at halftime, with Huff totaling 24 at intermission.
The Eagles scored the first five points in the second half to pull within two, but a 9-0 run bumped the UND lead back to double digits. Reuter scored five late points for the Eagles to pull the score to within 71-70 with 1:50 to play.
Harvey then had a steal, but a missed shot by Forbes and a turnover Chiverton led to a fast-break layin for UND. After a trade of baskets – including UND's deflected bucket -- Forbes missed a 3-pointer with a chance to tie, only to have North Dakota turn it into a fast-break dunk by Huff and a five-point lead with seven ticks left.
"We got a great look, and if we could always get that shot for Jeff from the corner for a wide-open three, I'd take it a hundred times," added Hayford. "Collin had a great pass to him, but it just didn't go down."