Eagles follow script for sweep
Eastern tops ISU 67-61 in OT, rolls past Weber 70-53 on Senior Day
As Eastern Washington women’s basketball coach Wendy Schuller said, “I don’t know if we could have scripted the week any better.”
Last Thursday night at Reese Court, her Eagles staged a big second half rally that forced overtime and Eastern scored a critical 67-61 win over Idaho State that solidified third place in the Big Sky Conference tournament.
Then Saturday afternoon, a pair of players had notable outings on their Senior Day as Eastern put together a pair of 35-point halves in a 70-53 victory over Weber State that closed out the regular season.
The combined result was Eastern (14-6 Big Sky, 18-11 overall) earned the No. 3 seed in Missoula and faced No. 6 Montana State (11-9, 17-12) last night (March13) in the opening round of the tournament at Dahlberg Arena.
The women’s tournament is sharing the building with the men as both University of Montana teams took regular season titles and the hosting rights that come with it. So should the Eagles win, they would next see action Friday against an unknown opponent.
“Idaho State was obviously a huge one for us,” Schuller said. “I thought we played with a lot of energy, I thought we had a great crowd, the band did a fabulous job as usual, just getting the atmosphere to almost a playoff level.”
After a sluggish first half that saw Eastern score just 18 points on 23 percent shooting from the floor, the Eagles picked up the intensity in the second half after trailing at the break 26-18.
But senior Carrie Ojeda fueled the second half rally with nine of the Eagles’ points in a 15-3 run that put Eastern back in the lead 33-29 by the 14:21 mark.
Outside of Eastern’s 8-point lead, 43-35 with 11:25 to go, the teams played it close. The Bengals rallied to regain the lead 49-48 with 2:02 to go on a Ashleigh Vella lay up, and had a 53-51 lead with 28 seconds remaining before Schuller called timeout.
Sophomore Lexi Nelson found Hayley Hodgins with a pass and the redshirt-freshman knocked down a contested mid-range jumper to tie the game 53-53 with just nine seconds to go.
Nelson scored seven of Eastern’s first nine points in overtime and Kylie Huerta finished with four free throws in the final 19 seconds for the final margin.
The Eagles were also out-rebounded in the first half, 21-13, but through the second half and overtime they out-rebounded the Bengals 31-14.
Nelson finished with a career-high 24 points on a 7-of-10 effort from the floor and a perfect 8-of-8 at the free throw stripe. Ojeda had 14 points, 10 in the second half. Aubrey Ashenfelter finished with 10 points and team-high nine rebounds.
“Carrie (Ojeda) did a great job in the post for us. Kylie (Huerta) ran the show and Lexie (Nelson) stepped up and really hit big shots, especially in overtime,” Schuller said
As a team, the Eagles converted a season-high 27 free throws on a season-high 33 attempts. Idaho State made just 17 of 25 at the line, and only converted 11 of 20 in the final 25 minutes.
The win meant Eastern earned its first sweep over the Bengals since 2003.
“Towards the end of the year you want to be clicking on all cylinders,” Schuller said. “And I really think, especially in the second half, we came out and played really good basketball.”
As the Eagles closed out the regular season at home against Weber, it was hard to dispatch the winless Wildcats until the second half.
Eastern got its first points from Nelson who gave the Eagles a 3-0 lead on a free throw and field goal. They never trailed and appropriately got their final points from senior Jordan Schoening, a nothing but net 3-pointer from the left corner with 1:45 to play.
“We go into Senior Day, a fabulous game and a career high (for Carrie Ojeda), and Jordan (Schoening) who has just had to struggle with limited minutes this year with her injury, for her to come out and knock down that 3 late in the game was really special; it will be something she always remembers,” Schuller said.
Ojeda had career-highs with 27 points and five steals to go with 12 rebounds against Weber. Nelson added 18.
“The pace was just blah,” Schuller said of a game where it seemed to take forever for the Eagles to take control over a team that was 0-29 on the season. The Eagles picked up the pace with more pressure.
“Sometimes the press gets us playing with more energy,” Schuller said. “It got us running more than we had been. I think that was the difference and from there we just kind of played our game.”
Schuller was impressed with the statement Ojeda made Saturday. “I thought Carrie just had a dominant performance and was just hard to guard,” Schuller said. “It’s good to see her confidence at a high level like that.”
“We really need that from her going into the tournament,” Schuller said.
Winners of five of their last six games, Eastern split the season series with the Bobcats, losing 73-60 at home Jan. 5 but collecting a 68-59 road win Jan. 31. “I really feel over the past couple of weeks we’ve been playing at the level we’d like to,” Schuller said. “Hopefully we can continue to improve this week.”
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.