EWU Women’s Basketball shows promising results in early season play

Senior+Ashli+Payne+has+been+a+key+contributor+for+EWU+women%27s+basketball+this+seaon

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Senior Ashli Payne has been a key contributor for EWU women’s basketball this seaon

By Brandon Cline, Sports Editor

The EWU women’s basketball team has only just begun Big Sky Conference play, but they are quickly proving that they are legitimate contenders for a conference championship and a berth to the NCAA Tournament come March.

The Eagles opened conference play on Dec. 31, decisively knocking off an Idaho Vandals team that was chosen by the coaches in the preseason to win the Big Sky.

EWU’s ‘Big Three,’ seniors Ashli Payne and Tisha Phillips and junior Delaney Hodgins, combined for 47 of EWU’s 67 points in the game. Payne recorded her first double-double of the season, finishing with 21 points and 14 rebounds.

“I thought we saw the best of all three at certain times today,” said head coach Wendy Schuller. “[Payne] really stepped up and played with a lot of confidence. She shot the ball well, which is something we see her do a lot of in practice.”

The Eagles continued their tough early conference schedule by traveling to Bozeman to face off against the Montana State Bobcats, who were chosen by the media to win the Big Sky just ahead of Idaho. The Eagles fell to the Bobcats in overtime but left an impact on the opposing coaching staff.

“Those three [Payne, Phillips and Hodgins] are legit and some of the best players in the Big Sky Conference,” said Bobcats head coach Tricia Binford. “We had our hands full. Defensively, that team had us out of sorts all night.”

EWU bounced back two days later, defeating the Montana Grizzlies 60-46 in Missoula to improve to 2-1 in conference play. Phillips and Hodgins provided much of the offense for the Eagles, combining for 37 points on 16-24 (66.6 percent) shooting.

Schuller called it a gutsy win for the Eagles who were still “a bit beat up” after the game against the Bobcats. The Eagle defense limited the Grizzlies to shoot just 17.6 percent from beyond the arc as well as forcing 20 turnovers.

EWU’s strong start to conference play can be attributed to more than just any one area. After going through last season without much depth, the Eagles have 11 players who are averaging at least eight minutes per game this season, giving the starters more opportunities for rest during games.

The Eagles are also starting strong right out of the gate in the first and second halves, allowing them to seize the early momentum in games and after halftime. They are outscoring opponents by 22 points in the first quarter and 42 points in the third quarter.

This year’s team is also simply shooting the ball better than their opponents in all three phases. The Eagles are shooting 43.2 percent from the field while holding their opponents to a 40.9 shooting percentage. They are also making 34.3 percent of their three-point shots, while opposing teams are shooting at a 30.1 percent clip. In free throw shooting, the Eagles are shooting 69 percent from the charity stripe, while opponents are making free throws at a 66 percent rate.

If the Eagles keep getting All-Big Sky levels of production from their core, as well as being able to dip into their bench when need be and continue to outshoot teams, they will be a tough out for any team the rest of the season. It might just lead them to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years.