The road to the postseason for the Eastern Washington men's basketball team got a little bit dicey Monday night. And it had nothing to do with the unexpected dump of snow that perplexed some local weather predictors.
The Portland State Vikings didn't let the roads - or their 2-7 record away from home - be of much concern and left Cheney with an 87-76 Big Sky Conference win that took the Eagles from possibly inching closer to a playoff berth to spinning their wheels, stuck in uncertainty.
Eastern's Reese Court loss came on the heels of an 85-74 road win last Saturday over Southern Utah in Cedar City, and while not crippling to their quest to reach the Big Sky tournament in two weeks, it certainly altered the path ahead with four games remaining before the tournament.
That path leads to road games at Northern Colorado, Thursday (Feb. 27) at 6:05 p.m. and North Dakota, Saturday, March 1 at 12:05 p.m. It's arguably the toughest road trip Eastern has taken for both the pure logistics of reaching Grand Forks, and conquering teams that are darn good on their home court. Northern Colorado (10-6 Big Sky, 16-9 overall) is a perfect 13-0 in Greeley while UND (9-7, 12-14) is 8-3 at the Betty Englestad Sioux Center.
"Sometimes in the sport you need to credit the other team," Eastern head coach Jim Hayford said. "Portland State came in here and they knew that if they lost they were out of the race."
Monday's game had many turning points for both teams, but in the end one particular stretch turned things in favor of Portland State (8-8, 13-12). After EWU's Drew Brandon sunk a pair of free throws to bring his team to within 54-53 with 10 minutes, 18 seconds to play, back-to-back 3-point baskets from Gary Winston started a 15-2 run to put the Vikings up by 14 at 69-55.
Eastern would chip away trimming it to a 77-72 game on three Tyler Harvey free throws after he was fouled on a 3-point try with 1:09 remaining. But PSU replied making seven of their next eight foul shots to push the lead back to 10 at 84-74 with 19 seconds to play.
The loss for Eastern (8-8, 13-14) took steam out of a late season surge that saw the Eagles win five of their previous six games. Eastern had the chance to move into what would have been a four-way tie for third, but instead is locked in a four-way tie for fourth place, and lost any tiebreaker with PSU if that should be a determining factor for EWU's first venture into postseason since Hayford's first season in 2011-12.
The teams traded baskets through the first 14:03 with Eastern leading 11-10 before Portland State used a 10-0 run to claim a 20-11 lead at the 9:30 mark. Eastern ended the half on a 12-2 run, highlighted by Parker Kelly's 4-point play- making a successful 3 and being fouled - that closed it to 31-30 PSU at halftime.
Eastern led 32-31 on a Venky Jois jumper 37 seconds into the second half but Portland State got hot, breaking away from a 39-38 lead by connecting on seven straight points to lead 46-38, an advantage they would not relinquish. Eastern got it back to one before PSU went on that defining run.
"We just cut it to one, had some defensive breakdowns, they made 3s and we couldn't overcome that separation," Hayford said. "We needed some more urgency once we cut it to one." But that didn't materialize.
Harvey led the Eagles with 23 points, Jois scored 18 points and had nine rebounds and three blocks. Martin Seiferth added 13 points. PSU had all five starters in double figures, led by the 22 from Kyle Richardson.
While Eastern held a slim 51 to 48 percent edge in field goal shooting in the game. It was PSU's 17-of-28 (60.7 percent) and 8-of-14 (57.1) effort from 3-point range that fueled a 56-46 edge in the second half.
"Like the game in Portland we had no answer for them on defense in the second half," Hayford said.
Portland State also outshot EWU 11-4 from 3-point range. Additionally, Eastern also had 13 turnovers that led to 14 Viking points.
"In both games their athleticism bothered us," Hayford explained. "The turnover differential in both games speaks about their athleticism, and they had great guard play in both games."
Saturday against Southern Utah, Jois had a career-high 29 points and 13 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season. Harvey added 26 and Brandon 16.
The Eagles led for all but 32 seconds of the game, and used runs of 11-0 and 9-0 in the second half for their second road win in the last three outings. Eastern closed out the victory by making 12 free throws in the final 2:32 against the Thunderbirds who remained winless (0-16) in Big Sky play and are 1-24 overall.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.