MISSOULA, Mont. -- It was not because of effort, fight or heart that the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team went down in the semifinals of the 2013 Big Sky Conference tournament.
Down 11 points with less than six minutes to play in regulation, EWU made an unbelievable run to force overtime against the No. 2-seeded Bears of Northern Colorado. But in the end, UNC was the team to survive, defeating the Eags, 70-64, on Friday (March 15) at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Mont.
Northern Colorado advances to the championship game to face No. 1 Montana on Saturday (March 16). The top-seeded Lady Griz defeated Sacramento State in the semifinals, 74-53.
For the third time in the last four years and sixth time under head coach Wendy Schuller, Eastern's Big Sky tourney run comes to an end in the semifinals. But the Eagles, now with a 19-12 record for the 2012-13 season and a top-100 RPI rating, are still hopeful for a postseason invitation. Brackets for the national postseason tournaments are announced Monday (March 18).
"We are obviously very disappointed not to be in the championship game," said EWU head coach Wendy Schuller. "But our team gave everything they had to get there. We've won a lot of games this year because this is a group that is willing to sacrifice whatever they have to. We fought and played extremely hard throughout the course of the game. In the end, I think it just came down to execution, and we weren't perfect."
Shooting an uncharacteristic 27 percent from the field in regulation and committing 18 turnovers, EWU found itself chasing the Bears the entire way. But despite their struggles, the Eags never gave up the fight.
With 3:21 remaining in the game, junior guard Chenise Pakootas drained a 3-pointer to give her team a little lift. UNC's All-Big Sky Second Team forward Lauren Oosdyke was able to convert on the other end though to make it 57-49 with 2:25 left on the clock. But at that point, Eastern's senior captain Carrie Ojeda went to work.
The 6-1 center, named to the All-Big Sky honorable mention team earlier this week, was able to draw a foul in the post and converted both free throws to make it 57-51. UNC then turned the ball over on its next possession, and the Eagles found Ojeda again. She converted a mid-range jumper to pull the team within four points (57-53) at the 1:46-mark.
Over the next 60 seconds, there were three turnovers and a collision at mid-court, as both teams scrapped and fought to gain an advantage. With the drama rising, sophomore guard Lexie Nelson was able to recover a loose ball on her end and converted a spot-up jumper from just inside the arc, making it a one-possession game for the Eags with 38 ticks left on the clock.
Prepared to make a tough defensive stance, EWU got the ball back sooner than expected when Northern Colorado's D'Shara Strange was called for an offensive foul just as she crossed mid court. On its final possession, Eastern found Ojeda down low, and the senior came up big once again, converting a contested layup to knot the score at 57.
UNC had 16 seconds left to run a play, but Strange missed a floater at the buzzer, sending it to overtime
Unfortunately, the Bears established control early in the OT period, hitting their first two shots to take a 60-57 edge. EWU turned the ball over four times and made just 1-of-4 field goals in overtime, while Northern Colorado got it done at the free-throw line, converting 11-of-15 shots.
"We turned the ball over way too many times, and failed to convert some easy opportunities offensively," said Schuller. "There were four or five times when they literally took it from us. That just can't happen at this level in these kind of games. Then, when we did have opportunities, we missed some shots in the paint that were good looks, whether it was a post touch or a transition layup, we just weren't converting easy baskets."
Before the 11-2 run to close out regulation, EWU had made just 6-of-21 shots in the second half, and only 8-of-30 in the first. The Eagles came into the game as the most efficient shooting team from the regular-season, but on Friday, that was the Achilles heel of the red and white.
The Bears outscored Eastern in the paint, 28-12, and also had a 24-13 advantage in points off turnovers.
The Eagles had a total of 22 miscues in the semifinal matchup - the third-most for the team in the entire 2012-13 season.
After going 1-of-7 in the first half, Ojeda made 5-of-8 from the field and 8-of-10 at the line in the final 25 minutes to finish with 20 points. She also corralled a game-high 14 rebounds for her eighth double-double of the year.
"Carrie was a warrior for us today," said Schuller. "She struggled offensively in the first half, but I think she figured things out and came out aggressive in the second half, which made a big difference for us. There was some really physical play going on in the paint with her, but she withstood it. To get 14 rebounds against a team like that in that environment - she was in beast-mode. I am very proud of her effort."
Nelson also eclipsed double digits, finishing with 10 points, but the Butte, Mont., native made just 3-of-13 from the floor and had five turnovers. She did lead the Eagles in assists with four.
Sophomore forward Melissa Williams also had 10 points to go along with six boards.
With her two big 3s in the final minutes of the second half, Pakootas finished with six tallies, while also contributing four rebounds, two blocks, one assist and one steal.