The Eastern Washington Eagles came close to securing their first postseason berth in five years, and they did it in great fashion.
After facing a quick 8-0 deficit, the Eagles (9-19, 6-9 Big Sky) defeated Big Sky Conference leader Montana (20-9, 12-4 Big Sky) 59-55 in overtime Saturday at Reese Court in Cheney.
The Eagles are in good shape to land a tournament berth. Only a potential three-way tie between EWU, Idaho State and Montana State at 6-10 could keep the Eagles out. The Eagles end the regular season on the road at Weber State on Wednesday
“I can’t imagine a better feeling in the world,” EWU head coach Kirk Earlywine said. “I’m really happy, really proud of my guys. I told them to win this game we’re going to have to grind. If we weren’t tough enough to grind on offense (and) defense we weren’t going to win.”
With 6.4 seconds left in overtime, and Eastern clinging to a one-point lead, Glen Dean found teammate Laron Griffin for an easy bucket and a foul. Griffin was injured on the play and Cliff Ederaine drained the free throw, cementing the final score.
The Eagles’ leading scorer, Dean, didn’t attempt a shot in the first half but finished with 17 points and five assists, connecting on all three of his 3-pointers, including a contested one with 1 second left on the shot clock with 5:22 to play in the second half.
“Coach was telling me to be patient and when the opportunities are there take advantage of it. I just wanted to stick to the game plan,” Dean said.
“Part of the maturation process is him learning that having to feel during a game what he needs to do for the team to win,” Earlywine said. “On some nights we need him to score and on some nights he needs to run our team. Sometimes being the best player on the floor means running your team.”
With 1:38 to go in overtime, Dean dished the ball to Tremayne Johnson on a fast break that ended in a rim-rattling dunk that brought the home crowd to its feet.
“When your bigs run hard, you’ve got to reward them,” Dean said. “(Tremayne) just capped it off with a terrific dunk. I think that gave us the energy we needed to finish the game out.”
The Eagles started slowly, shooting just 35 percent in the first half. They missed 4 of 5 free throws, but went into the break down 22-17 as Jeffrey Forbes hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Griffin held Montana center Brian Qvale to 12 points, nearly three less than his season average. With his eighth point on the night, Qvale surpassed 1,000 career points.
“Griffin is an unbelievable help defender, he covers mistakes by other guys,” Earlywine said.
Ederaine scored 14 points and Cliff Colimon 13. Colimon added a career-high seven rebounds to go with three 3-pointers.
“We needed this (win), but we still got work to do,” Dean said. “This is the start of it, but we got work to do. We’ve got a lot of potential so we just got to take advantage of it.”
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