An 11-point deficit early in the second half against Northwest Christian didn’t seem to faze the Eastern Oregon men’s basketball team.
Instead, the Mountaineers whittled away at the margin, pulled ahead in the closing moments and made the key shots — many of them from Max McCullough — to earn their first Cascade Collegiate Conference victory.
McCullough poured in 35 points, Jordan May added 20 and EOU rallied to knock off defending CCC champion NCU, 93-85, Friday night at Quinn Coliseum.
“That’s going to be the blueprint of how we play is grit things out,” EOU head coach Carlito Labarda Jr. said of the win, his first in CCC play. “That was a gritty game. We didn’t try to get everything all at once. A little at a time. That was a very good team we beat.”
McCullough and May played key roles in the comeback, scoring 23 and 13 points, respectively, after halftime and making clutch plays late.
May hit back-to-back 3-pointers to trim NCU’s 11-point lead — the largest of the game — to 62-57 at the 13:22 mark. The lead then stayed between three and
seven points until McCullough trimmed it to 72-70 with a pair of free throws and lobbed an alley-oop to Peter Eke to tie the score at 72-all with 4:39 left.
“It’s a little bit of both,” McCullough said when asked if the lob was a set play or a read. “If it’s there we have the freedom to throw it. That’s not the first option, but it was there, we threw it (and) they overplayed the screen. I gave it to him. I trusted he would finish it.”
Eke’s free throw 50 seconds later gave Eastern the lead for good, but EOU didn’t put NCU away until McCullough drained a deep 3-pointer — his fourth of the night — to make it 84-80 with 1:21 to play. Cole Ashby followed with a steal and layup with 53 seconds to play, and the Beacons never recovered.
“That dunk got us going, and then Max’s 3 at the end and Cole’s steal, those were huge plays,” May said of EOU’s late-game prowess. “Those were plays that changed the game for us.”
McCullough said the Mountaineers’ rally, and then ability to make the late plays to hold off NCU, was an example of their toughness.
“We knew we’d be right there. Once we took the lead we stayed with it,” he said. “That’s how it’s been all season.”
McCullough, who was three points off his season high, added five assists. Labarda was surprised to learn of his scoring output.
“I didn’t realize how many points he had. That’s why I play him 40 minutes,” Labarda said. “You can’t take him off the floor. He may make a bad play, but then he’ll make three or four good ones after that. And he’s such a tough competitor.”
Blake O’Donnell added eight 14 points for the Mountaineers. Eke finished with just four points, but had a game-high eight rebounds — five on the offensive end — and brought an energy to the floor that changed the game.
“He might not be on the court as much as any of the starters, but when he comes in he brings us something that we may not have,” May said. “If we need a rebound, coach has him in the game. If we need someone to get in there and get that block like he had (in the first half), coach has him in the game.”
Eke came in early in the first half with EOU down eight, and had a block and a steal in less than two minutes during a 10-0 EOU run. He helped the Mountaineers on the defensive side in the second half during their rally, forcing NCU into tough shots and forcing turnovers before the rim-rattling dunk that lit up Quinn.
“Anytime he gets a monster block or a monster dunk, we seem to go on a roll for the next two or three minutes,” Labarda said. “It excites the crowd, but it excites the players, too, and it brings more energy.”
EOU 83, Corban 80: Max McCullough scored 18 points and hit the game-winning layup with 1.9 seconds remaining as EOU completed a weekend sweep by outlasting Corban in a back and forth battle.
With the score tied at 80-all, McCullough milked the clock, then got to the rim for the layup and the foul. His free throw made a three-point game, and Corban’s last-ditch heave missed.
Austin Winegar led EOU with 19 points. Blake O’Donnell had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, and Jordan May scored 12 points. McCullough also dished out seven assists.
Eastern (10-2 overall, 2-2 CCC) hosts College of Idaho Wednesday.