It was a feisty, physical game between the top two teams in the Big Sky, but the Eastern Washington University women’s basketball team had the edge on Thursday as it defeated Montana, 58-56, in a regular-season meeting at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
With the win, EWU improves to 7-5 in the 2012-13 campaign, and a perfect 3-0 in Big Sky play. The Eagles have won their last five games in a row, and will go for six this Saturday (Jan. 5) when they take on Montana State (4-7, 1-2) at 2 p.m. at Reese Court. Montana drops to 8-4 overall and 2-1 in conference.
Thursday’s game between the Big Sky leaders proved to be a defensive battle.
With both teams shooting below 30 percent from the field in the first half, EWU and Montana went into the locker room in a 24-24 deadlock. The Eagles earned a slight advantage after scoring 11 points in the first two minutes of the second half, but Montana, under 35-year head coach Robin Selvig, never let it get out of reach.
With less than four minutes remaining in the game, Eastern enjoyed a seven-point edge at 53-46. But a basket by UM forward Jordan Sullivan sparked an 8-1 run for the Lady Griz, as they managed to knot the score at 56 with 1:14 on the clock. EWU sophomore Melissa Williams came up with a big shot on the baseline - her first made field goal of the game - to put Eastern back up by two, but Montana’s first-team all-conference forward, Katie Baker, answered with a layup, leaving Eastern with 13.9 seconds.
“We wanted to try and get Lexie [Nelson] going to the hoop off a hand-off ball screen,” said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. “But Montana defended it well, and at that point, we just tried to make a play.”
Nelson drove hard to the lane and put up a shot that was off the mark, but after fighting for position, junior center Laura Hughes came up with the offensive rebound. She went back up and was fouled in the act, sending her to the line with 1.8 ticks left on the clock.
Already 4-of-4 on the night, Hughes knocked down both free throws to give Eastern its final 58-56 lead. Montana attempted to pass the length of the court on the inbound, but Hughes intercepted that play as well, as EWU prevailed in just its third game this year decided by five or fewer points.
“Laura plays hard for us, and that situation comes with a lot of pressure,” said Schuller. “It’s one of those you imagine in your head, and I was extremely proud of her for stepping up and knocking them down.”
Hughes finished with six points, all earned at the free throw line, four rebounds and three steals.
Nelson, who was playing for the first time against her former team, led the Eagles with 14 points. She also contributed four rebounds, four assists and three steals. The 5-6 guard out of Butte, Mont., started her collegiate career at Montana as a true freshman in 2010-11. She transferred to Eastern following her rookie campaign.
“Montana was working hard defensively on Lexie, but she just did what she does for us every game,” said Schuller. “She gave us a great effort, and did a great job on the defensive end. Deep down this might have been a tough game for her, but she goes as hard as she can whenever she steps on the floor.”
Junior Aubrey Ashenfelter finished with eight points, five rebounds and three assists, while senior Carrie Ojeda chipped in nine points and seven boards before fouling out in the final two minutes.
Although Eastern ended up shooting just 31.4 percent from the field, the Eagles kept Montana from doing much better, as the Lady Griz shot 32.1 percent on the night. Montana came into the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in turnovers, averaging just 10.9 per game. Eastern was able to force 14 on Thursday, as Williams, Nelson and Hughes each had three steals a piece.
“Our team battled, and I was really pleased with our defensive effort,” said Schuller. “It was a grind. We knew it was going to be a physical, long night, and both teams really, really fought. Although it doesn’t always show up in the stats, we had a few players do a great job defensively for us. Aubrey was phenomenal, and Carrie is probably one of the best defender’s in our league. She sees everything, and is everywhere.”
Williams was a few points shy of a double-double, as she finished with seven tallies and a team-leading 10 rebounds - her third double-digit rebound performance this season.