Photo by Will Hopkins | Elevated Media
BOISE, Idaho – The No. 4 Eastern Washington Eagles (18-10, 11-7 Big Sky) entered their March 6 Big Sky Tournament quarterfinals matchup against the No. 5 Montana Grizzlies (14-15, 10-7 Big Sky) after winning their final four games of the season, all in-conference.
The Grizzlies entered the tournament having lost four of their last six games, all in-conference.
The two teams split their season series with the Lady Grizz winning their Dec 29 match by a score of 81-70, and the Eagles winning their most recent meeting on Jan 16 87-60.
The winner of this match will play the No. 1 Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks on March 7 in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament.
Eastern Washington eventually surpassed Montana after a slow start. As well as 23-point performances from both redshirt freshman guard Aaliyah Alexander and graduate student point guard and defensive player of the year Jamie Loera helped the Eagles soar over the Grizzlies 72-64.
The Lady Grizz convincingly won the first quarter, with fifth-year guard Sammy Fatkin leading the team with six points and three boards.
The game started slow similar to a few of the games on the women’s bracket have so far, but a layup from Fatkin opened the scoring just under a minute and a half into the game.
Montana kept up the heat after that, outscoring Eastern Washington in the opening three minutes 8-2.
Loera was, in the words of head coach Joddie Gleason, a “menace” in the first half, scored 15 points and finished the game with five steals.
“… she’s a great defender, she can get rebounds, she can get steals, but she’s an even better teammate and leader for us,” Gleason said during the postgame.
She sniped a three from the left which began an 8-0 run for the Eagles and then after getting fouled, sunk both free throws on the next possession to make it a one-point game.
Alexander gave EWU the lead after making a three of her own after sophomore guard Alexis Pettis fed her after a steal.
The game remained close the rest of the quarter with teams trading layups and jump shots.
With just 13 seconds left in the quarter, redshirt freshman forward Keeli Burton-Oliver scored off a layup to give the Lady Grizz a 23-18 lead going into the second quarter.
The Eagles flipped the game on its head in the second, with the teams going into the half 43-35.
Montana struggled to make shots during the second, going 4-14 from the field, and not one player making more than a single shot. They also only drew one foul, but Eastern Washington smothered them defensively in that quarter.
“The second quarter was just really the difference in the game… we were lax on defense and we turned the ball over and it’s really a simple thing,” Montana head coach Brian Holsinger said.
Loera and junior guard Jacinta Buckley led the Eagles through the second with eight and six points respectively.
While the Grizzlies struggled to put points on the board, the Eagles finished the final 1:42 on a 10-0 run, with Buckley scoring a layup just before the buzzer.
The game evened out over the second half with both teams each scoring 29, but the closest that Montana got was a 7-0 run over a period of four minutes in the third quarter that got them within two.
Redshirt senior guard Carmen Gfeller led the way through this quarter for the Lady Grizz as she did most of her damage here, scoring nine of the 14 her team would get within the quarter.
Gfeller finished the game with a team-high 18 points.
Over this run, Eastern Washington missed five straight shots until the run was ended by Loera with just 1:38 left in the third.
“We’re made for this moment… we’re built for this. So when teams throw punches we’re tough enough to take it and run with it,” Loera said in regards to holding on in the third.
The Eagles scored twice more including a layup from Loera with just nine seconds left in the third to regain their eight-point lead.
The fourth quarter played out like a funeral for the Lady Grizz.
Montana could not gain any ground on EWU over the final 10 minutes of this game, and not getting within four points of them over that time.
Alexander ended the game with a three-point dagger bringing the lead back to eight with 48 seconds remaining.
“It’s a great feeling I love to compete, love to work hard for my teammate, so just to be able to do that in a game was just really really exciting,” Alexander said after the game.
The Eagles eliminated the Grizzlies to progress to the semifinals 72-64. They will take on the Lumberjacks on March 7 in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament.
EWU split the season series with NAU taking the first match on Jan 21 at home in overtime 96-89. Then lost the second match on Feb 16 in Flagstaff 61-55.