SPOKANE, Wash. - After enduring a tough one-point loss to Northern Colorado to begin its final regular-season road trip, the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team finished it on a higher note, with a 67-58 victory against North Dakota on Saturday (March 2) at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center in Grand Forks, N.D.
With the win, Eastern improves to 16-11 on the year and 12-6 in conference, while also picking up its third regular-season sweep of the 2013 Big Sky season. EWU also won both games against Southern Utah and Portland State. North Dakota saw its postseason hopes take a hit, as it fell to 11-16 overall and 6-13 in league play.
"I was really proud of our team today," said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. "We had a long travel day yesterday, after finishing late on Thursday with a loss that obviously weighed heavy on us. I thought we did a really good job of refocusing. We told them [the team] before the game that every single one of these is as important as the next. As disappointing as Thursday was, we knew this one is just as important, and we needed to take care of business. Overall, I thought we fought hard and we made plays when we had to."
The Eagles came into the game in a three-way tie for third place with Idaho State and Sacramento State. Now for a few hours, EWU stands alone in third with a 1/2 game lead, but the Bengals and Hornets square off later this afternoon in Pocatello, so another team will inevitably reach the 12-6 mark before the day's end. Eastern is 2 1/2 games back from league-leading Montana (20-6, 14-3) and two games behind second-place Northern Colorado (17-10, 14-4) in the Big Sky standings.
Eastern Washington controlled most of the game Saturday in Grand Forks, as it never trailed after the 15:56 mark in the first half. The Eagles went into the locker room at halftime with a 10-point advantage, and maintained that double-digit lead for almost the entire second half, until the home team made a late run in the final four minutes to keep things interesting.
Back-to-back buckets for junior Melissa Williams and senior Carrie Ojeda gave the Eagles a 59-46 advantage with just over five minutes remaining in the game. But over the next 2 1/2 minutes, UND went on a 10-2 run to cut its deficit to six at 62-56.
EWU then missed three-straight free throws, as well as an attempt from beyond the arc to keep the hope alive for UND. But with 44 ticks remaining, sophomore Lexie Nelson got to the line and converted a big free throw to extend Eastern's lead to a valuable seven-point margin.
North Dakota came up empty-handed on its next two possessions, while EWU went on to make 4-of-4 free throws to seal the win.
"We got a little conservative defensively, and were not attacking or moving as well on that end," said Schuller, of the lat run made by UND. "We gave up a few three-point plays and had a couple possessions that we just missed shots. Although these kind of games aren't great for the coaching staff in terms of grey hairs, it was almost a good thing to be able to pull one out down the stretch. After what happened on Thursday [at Northern Colorado], it helps our confidence to know we can finish games."
Eastern finished the game shooting 38 percent from the floor at 77 percent at the line. Led by eight assists from sophomore point guard Kylie Huerta, the Eagles also posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.4. This season, in games when Eastern's assist-to-turnover is 0.8 or better, the team is 14-2.
The Eagles also capitalized on 20 UND turnovers, scoring 23 points off them. North Dakota made just 16-of-57 from the field and only 5-of-25 from beyond the arc on its senior day.
"I thought our zone defense did well for us," said Schuller. "We were a little worried about their post players getting a lot of touches, but our zone was effective in keeping the ball out of their hands."
Ojeda led all scorers with a career-high 21 points after going 7-of-10 from the floor and 7-of-8 at the free throw line. She also grabbed five rebounds, and had two assists and three steals.
"Carrie really asserted herself offensively from an early point today," said Schuller. "She was willing to step up and take shots, and she hit some big jumpers and scored a few times with her back to the basket. Late in the game, she was able to be aggressive and to get to the line when they [North Dakota] was starting to make a run."
Sophomore Lexie Nelson joined Ojeda in double figures with 14 points, to go along with her five assists and a team-leading seven rebounds.
Huerta had nine points on 3-of-5 shooting from downtown, while also contributing eight assists and three steals with just one turnover.
"Kylie had a great weekend for us overall," said Schuller. "She did a good job of looking to score when we needed her to, but was really solid distributing it as well. Her assist-to-turnover ratio says it all."
Williams and junior center Laura Hughes, who were both out with injury in EWU's first meeting with North Dakota, combined for 11 points on 7-of-12 shooting and 11 rebounds in this game.
The Eagles will now return to Cheney for their final two contests of the regular-season. EWU plays Idaho State in a crucial game for tournament seeding on Thursday (March 7), and then takes on winless Weber State on Saturday (March 9) for Senior Day at Reese Court.