Eastern Washington got two massive performances from the Groves brothers and held a lead over Kansas for much of Saturday afternoon, but the third-seeded Jayhawks seized control late to cut the Eagles’ dream short and advance to the second round.
Though he said he “doesn’t believe in moral victories,” EWU coach Shantay Liggins expressed his pride in the team after the battle.
“I’ve got to give the guys on Kansas credit, but I love my team. They played with such fun, they played hard, they’ve done everything I’ve asked and I couldn’t be more proud of a basketball team,” he said.
Big Sky Player of the Year Tanner Groves played the game of his life on the biggest stage, putting up 35 points on 11-18 shooting and 5-11 from deep. His brother, Jacob Groves, scored 23 on 8-11 shooting and 4-5 from behind the arc, while collecting nine rebounds before fouling out. Together they scored 58 of the Eagles’ 84 points – 69 percent of their entire team’s offensive output.
“I’ve got great teammates that were finding me all game,” the heavily bearded Tanner Groves said postgame. “I was knocking shots down, I was feeling good. We [came] up short…but I was really happy with the performance that our team put together today, for the most part, we only lost by [single] digits and it was a dogfight the whole game.”
“Certainly the Groves brothers were the two best players in the game in the first half,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t guard them, they had us all messed up in ball-screen defense.”
The Groves brothers lifted the Eagles to their largest lead of the game, 52-42, under two minutes into of the second half. But the more talented Jayhawks began to finally find their groove, going on a 40-18 run to seize the control that belonged to EWU for much of the first half. David McCormack played a huge role of his run and scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half, while reeling in nine boards. Kansas had two other 20-point scorers: Ochai Agbaji (21) and Marcus Garrett (20).
The Eagles more than held their own offensively, slightly outshooting Kansas 50-48 percent, and impressively matching them in total rebounds despite giving up a bit of size inside. Down the stretch, however, the Eagles were not able to get much scoring from players not named Groves after the Kansas defense adjusted their focus onto them. The Jayhawks finished with a decisive 35-12 edge in bench points, and EWU had only four non-Groves points in the first 15 minutes of the second period, by which point KU had opened up their commanding 12-point lead.
Kansas also forced seven more turnovers than EWU, and earned significant advantages in fast-break points (10-0) and second chance points (13-2).
“[Kansas] came out and offensive rebounded and made second chance points, and they made some big shots. I mean, that’s a big time program,” Legans said. “We went toe to toe with them, we played hard.”
EWU stunned the sparse Indiana Farmers Coliseum crowd by scoring the first nine points of the game, including seven points from Jacob Groves. Kansas settled down to take a 26-19 lead, but the Eagles responding with a terrific surge, at one point hitting four consecutive threes during a dizzying minute-and-a-half stretch, and opened up an eight point lead heading into the locker room.
Tanner Groves had 15 first half points and proved to be a difficult matchup throughout, both inside and out. “They snake the back side, and so we cut the guy through and we knew Tanner would get a lot of pops, because he’s a great shooter,” Legans said. “And when they took one of the big guys out, we knew Tanner could take advantage inside.”
After the Eagles quickly stretched that lead to 10 however, Kansas began to assert their superior athleticism and score in bunches. They made 14 of 19 attempts during a particular burst, and the Groves’ couldn’t quite help the Eagles keep pace. Kansas stretched the lead to 80-68 just under five minutes to play, and EWU never seriously challenged again.
“We were going into the game saying ‘Hey, we’ve got to protect the paint,’ even though we gave up 42 points in the paint, and they hit some timely three-point shots…they have two [defensive guards] that can really hound you bringing the ball up, and disrupt your offense, and I think they did a great job of doing that,” said Legans.
Unfortunately, the three-point touch that the Eagles once had was not there in the second half, missing five of six three pointers to begin the period – many of them frustratingly rattling in and out – and not hitting again until the game appeared in hand for Kansas. They hit on 50 percent of their threes in the first half but only 25 in the second, finishing at 38 percent for the game.
Despite the disappointing outcome, it was a refreshing performance for a team from the Big Sky – looking for its first tourney victory since 2006 – in the Big Dance. The future is bright in Cheney though, as the Eagles get both Groves brothers back and look to get back to the Big Dance next year.
“We’re returning a whole bunch of guys…we’ve got a lot of key players coming back, and from what I see, the ceiling is so high for us, it’s incredibly high,” Tanner Groves said. “You only saw 17 seconds of few of the guys on the bench like Steele Venters. I expect Steele to come in next year and be one of the better scorers of the whole entire league…Coaches have done an unbelievable job recruiting for our team this year and for the guys coming in. I think we’re definitely going to be dangerous next year, and I’m really looking forward to next season already.”
Coach Legans summed it up when asked about what he thought the performance said about his program.
“[It says that] we’re a good team, that we can battle with the best of them. We’re a tough team, we shoot a lot of threes, but we’re a tough team – we can go inside, we can go outside. We showed that it’s a player’s program, and our guys came out and played. We played against Kansas…if you gave me those numbers before the game I would’ve said we won. But you know, we showed that the Big Sky is no joke, we’ve got some great coaches in our league, some great teams…some great players, and whoever comes out of the league is always going to be very tough.”