Eastern Oregon’s offense has been the focal point much of the season. And deservedly so. After all, the Mountaineers average more than 82 points per game and are the nation’s top 3-point shooting team, hitting 41.7 percent of their attempts on the season.
But the old adage says, “defense wins championships,” and indeed, it was the defensive effort of the sixth-ranked Mountaineers that carried the team to a 63-52 win over Southern Oregon in Monday night’s regionally televised Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament title game.
The Mountaineers, who won their 24th game in a row, held the No. 11 Raiders’ offense to its lowest scoring output in more than a year. They locked down after surrendering 22 points in the opening quarter, allowing just 30 points the rest of the way and holding the Raiders to 29.9 percent shooting. They even twice — at the start of the second and third quarters — held SOU to stretches of at least five minutes without a point.
EOU needed every bit of that defensive prowess and thensome. EOU struggled from the floor and from the 3-point line for the second game in a row — particularly in the first half — and was held to its fourth-lowest offensive output of the season.
But the defense more than made up for the offensive struggles in the team’s biggest game of the season. The Mountaineers limited SOU to just 11-for-46 shooting after the first quarter, collected six blocked shots — five from Mariah Swanson — collected 10 steals forced two shot-clock violations, to name just a few highlights.
They also showed an uncanny ability to make clutch plays throughout, but particularly in the fourth quarter to finally close out the game and secure the CCC title.
EOU scored the first seven points of the final quarter to take the lead for good, 47-41, after a Jessica Sexson jumper and a 3-pointer and layup by Maya Ah You-Dias. Swanson blocked a shot, then later on the other end hit a jumper to keep EOU ahead by six. Then the Mountaineers turned defense into offense to ice the game. Reece Bauer collected a steal and then found an open Swanson for a layup and a 10-point lead with just 2:22 to play. Two possessions later, Sexson nabbed the ball away from Daranda Hinkey and fed Payton Parrish for a fastbreak layup and a 61-49 lead with just over 1:20 to go. SOU never got the gap under double figures again.
SOU scored the game’s first nine points and took as much a 19-8 lead on an Ariel Augustine jumper with 2:58 to play in the first quarter. Toria Bradford, who led the Raiders with 14 points, scored 10 in the opening period, which ended with Southern up 22-14.
But the Raiders’ offense grinded to a halt after the fast start. SOU went scoreless for the first 6:23 of the second quarter, shot just 2-for-17 in the period and scored just six points. Yet EOU could only get within two in the second, and was down 28-24 in what was its lowest-scoring half of the season. The half saw the Raiders shoot just 11-for-38, while EOU shot only 8-for-33.
Eastern maintained the defensive pressure into the third, and the defense led to the Mountaineers taking their first lead. Stormee Van Belle grabbed a steal, which led to a Sexson jumper on the ensuing possession. Payton Parrish later collected a steal and hit a 3 on the next trip for a 29-28 lead with 6:31 to play in the third. Van Belle scored twice to extend the lead to five before the Raiders responded to take a 35-33 lead when Remi Mejia’s 3-pointer capped a 7-0 run. The teams traded the lead twice more in the third, which ended with SOU up 41-40.
EOU was a much more efficient 16-for-33 in the second half, and saw eight different player score
Swanson, who scored a game-high 16 points, had 13 in the second half. Ah You-Dias, who added 13 points, scored nine in the fourth quarter. She also had nine rebounds and six assists. Bauer added six assists and three steals.
Augustine was the only other player in double figures, scoring 10 points for SOU.
Both EOU (30-2 overall) and SOU (27-4) had clinched national tournament bids prior to the contest, and wait to see where they will be seeded for the NAIA National Championships in Sioux City, Iowa, when the 32-team bracket is released Wednesday.
The national tournament begins March 7.