The game wasn’t always pretty. Eastern Oregon head coach Anji Weissenfluh even called it “winning ugly.”
But it was a victory nonetheless, and it landed the No. 6 EOU women’s basketball team in tonight’s Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament title game.
Stormee Van Belle scored 21 points, Mariah Swanson and Maya Ah You-Dias added 17 each and the Mountaineers outlasted Oregon Tech, 77-65, Friday in the CCC semifinals for their 23rd consecutive victory.
“They made a conscious effort to take away some of our things that we do naturally. So I give all the credit to OIT,” Weissenfluh said. “I thought we had a lot of grit and we were able to stay close until we were able to go on a little run to give ourselves some breathing room.”
The game was a stark contrast to a week ago, when Eastern had its way inside and out to earn an 85-57 victory.
This time, the Mountaineers had to overcome one of their worst games from 3-point range (4-for-18) and an uncharacteristically cold effort from the free-throw line (21-for-34).
“We just had an off shooting night,” Ah You-Dias said. “We really couldn't pull away. Our 3-pointers save us a lot. That's how we've been able to beat teams by as big of a margin as we have been. When the 3-pointers are falling we don't get to get that jump.”
The Owls, trying to channel some recent history, were also playing inspired.
“We showed them the highlight film of the 2015 tournament (title) game here where we were the No. 5 seed and we snuck out with a championship victory,” said OIT head coach Scott Meredith, referring to Tech’s 57-51 victory in La Grande three years ago. “And they watched that (Friday). I think all the girls thought, ‘Why not us?’ The tight score at halftime gave us some confidence.”
Tech led as much as 18-11 on a Mikaela Shumaker jumper midway through the first quarter, and countered a 12-0 EOU run with a 12-2 spurt of its own to take a 30-25 lead with 4:40 to play in the second.
Eastern eventually tied the score at 32-all on a 3-pointer by Reece Bauer — the team’s first of the game — and took the lead on a pair of free throws from Ah You-Dias just before the half.
EOU’s lead, advantage, was a scant 36-34 at the break, and every time Eastern seemed poised to pull away in the second half, OIT countered.
“We would get on a run because of our defensive stops, and then they would get us in a transition point or get a break from us, (and) it would take the wind out of our sails but we just had to regather and get back into our rhythm.
Van Belle, Ah You-Dias and Maren Herrud were all key in a 10-0 run to break a 47-all tie. Herrud started the run with a jumper. Van Belle turned followed with a steal on defense, which led to a 3 by Ah You-Dias. Van Belle then blocked a shot and fed Herrud for a triple and finished the run with a layup for a 57-47 lead late in the third quarter.
Tech responded with five straight points to get within 57-52 after three, got as close as four on a pair of Nohea Waiwaiole free throws with 5:16 to play and was still within six with a minute left, but Eastern did enough down the stretch to hold on.
With the 3-pointers not falling — and with OIT focusing on stopping the 3-pointer — Van Belle and Swanson became the focal point of the EOU offense, which they have been in recent contests The two, in fact, are averaging 17.0 and 17.3 points per game respectively, the last four games to lead the team.
“Those are our workhorses,” Weissenfluh said of Van Belle and Swanson. “Storm and Mar are some of my toughest kids, and they've been stepping up and been able to carry the load. That's what makes us good. We’ve got a lot of weapons and right now they’ve been able to produce.”
Friday, the two were a combined 14-for-27 from the floor. The rest of the team was just 12-for-36.
“(Other teams have) been trying to take our 3-pointer away so our main emphasis has been to score points in the paint and so we just pound it into Stormee and Mar,” Ah You-Dias said. “They’re both shooting high field-goal percentages.”
Swanson added nine rebounds to lead Eastern. Van Belle had four assists and four steals and Ah You-Dias collected four steals.
Waiwaiole had 18 points, nine rebounds and four assists to lead OIT.
EOU (29-2 overall) will host Southern Oregon in tonight’s CCC tournament title game, which will also be televised live on ROOT Sports. The Raiders beat Northwest Christian in the other semifinal, 80-58. EOU won both regular season contests — 81-68 in Ashland and 82-68 in La Grande.