After more than 30 years, the Eastern Washington Eagles were less than five minutes away from returning to the NCAA Tournament Friday.
But late-game offensive struggles contributed to the Eagles blowing a seven-point lead against Portland State in the Big Sky championship, and Violet Kapri Morrow’s potential tying shot at the buzzer missed off the front iron, ending a scintillating tournament run and sending Wendy Schuller’s team into a fascinating offseason.
“I feel like my heart’s been ripped out of my chest right now, honestly,” a tearful Schuller said postgame. “This team laid it out there like I’ve never seen a team lay it out there, for four games in a row. I couldn’t be more proud to be their coach.”
The No. 6 seed Eagles were the story of the tournament after a five-day run of close games and stunning finishes, capturing the attention of Big Sky fans as they came oh-so-close to making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 31 years.
They pulled away from No. 11 seed Weber State late in the first round, winning 81-74.
Against No. 3 Idaho State in the quarterfinals, they were down 12 going to the fourth quarter but tied the game on two Jessica McDowell-White free throws with 12 seconds left.
The Bengals’ Saylair Grandon barely missed a game-winner at the buzzer, and a Morrow steal and layup with 1:33 left in overtime gave Eastern a 67-65.
The semifinals against No. 2 Northern Colorado topped even that drama. Down one and inbounding the ball under her own backboard, McDowell-White, a freshman, threw the ball off the back of Big Sky legend Savannah Smith and converted the game-winning and-1 with three seconds left.
That sent Schuller to the Big Sky championship game for the first time in her 18-year career at EWU.
“I think proud is an understatement,” senior Alissa Sealby said. “I just can’t think of a word to describe how I feel about the team right now. We’re always picked as the underdog, every year we’re picked at the bottom of the league, so that always gives us fire. … We came to practice every day knowing what we were capable of, and we took that mindset into the tournament.”
After not getting a bye in the tournament, the Portland State game was EWU’s sixth game in eight days, a crazy schedule that only comes around when it’s tournament time.
In the end, it was too much to overcome. The Eagles led 57-50 with 5:35 left, but scored just once more, a clutch floater from McDowell-White to tie the game at 59, and lost on Desirae Hansen’s fadeaway with three seconds left.
“The effort was unbelievable,” Schuller said. “We tried to keep our legs as fresh as we could. I thought we defended like crazy today. … I do think in the fourth quarter, we just weren’t cutting and you could see fatigue in us, but I still think we had opportunities.”
Perspective was hard to come by in a difficult postgame press conference, but the Eagles should be in a good place next year, with the ability to build off their run.
Leading scorer Morrow will be gone, as will two other rotation players in Amira Chandler and Sealby, but Eastern will return two layers who started as freshmen, guard Grace Kirscher and post Bella Cravens.
McDowell-White, who made the all-tournament team despite coming off the bench, was just a freshman as well, and another starter, Brittany Klaman, was a sophomore.
All four came up with big-game performances over the course of the Eagles’ run to the championship game.
Aside from McDowell-White’s heroics, Cravens had 13 and 12 rebounds in the Idaho State game and Kirscher was in double figures against Weber State with 11. Klaman was often tasked with guarding the other team’s best guard, including in the championship, when she held PSU’s all-tournament point guard Kylie Jimenez to just seven points and two assists.
“By this time of year, those freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore,” Schuller said. “They’ve figured out how to step up and do big things.”
Having that young core back next year will be a huge advantage in a conference that might have a little bit of a power vacuum.
Northern Colorado’s Smith and the Idaho tandem of Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce have dominated the Big Sky for the last four years, with their teams always at the top of the conference.
All three will be gone next year, as will Portland State’s three senior stars — Ashley Bolston, Sidney Reilly and Courtney West — and Idaho State’s duo of Grandon and Grace Kenyon.
That means all four top seeds could be facing a rebuilding year, and Eastern Washington, after seeing its youngsters come up big in the biggest games of the year, might have a leg up on the teams scrambling to fill that hole at the top.
And if they do, next year’s success will be built on this year’s heartbreaking loss.
“Those guys really grew as the season went, and started to learn more and more,” Schuller said. “It’s a very talented young class, and they did huge things for us this year. I think that they’re going to be a lot of fun to watch for the next several years.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All rights Reserved.