EWU Eagles fall short in second half against No. 3 seed Kansas Jayhawks

An offensive clinic from the Groves brothers wasn't enough for Eastern Washington to overcome a hoops powerhouse in Kansas.
FILE - Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans talks to his players during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., in this Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, file photo. If some of the offensive and defensive schemes 14th-seeded Eastern Washington runs look awfully similar to the style of Kansas, that's because it is. Coach Shantay Legans has never formally met Jayhawks coach Bill Self, his counterpart in the first round, but feels like he knows Self given how much time he's studied Self's team and style. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File)

INDIANAPOLIS — At points, it seemed like the Eastern Washington Eagles were on track to make history. Never before has Eastern Washington won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Big Sky Player of the Year Tanner Groves and his brother, Jacob Groves, surged EWU to a 46-38 halftime lead; providing a glimmer of hope for fans throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Then as the second half began, the Kansas Jayhawks finally woke up. EWU came up short, largely due to a 19-7 run late in the second half, resulting in an 84-93 loss to eliminate the program from the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Though it isn’t the result fans wished for, EWU put up a valiant effort in one of the most competitive games in the round of 64.

Defensively, the Eagles outplayed Kansas in the first half. The Jayhawks gave up their most points in an opening half this season; clearly underestimating the offensive threat imposed by the Groves brothers.

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The Groves scorched Kansas in the first half for 34 of their combined 58 points in the contest. The younger Groves brother, Jacob, lit Kansas up from beyond the arc in the first half with 16 of his 23 points including six of his eight made field goals. His intensity didn’t last as he went scoreless through the first 10 minutes of the second half.

By stretching the floor against a traditional center rotation, Tanner Groves scorched the Jayhawks. Between his smooth 3-point stroke and physical interior presence, Groves finished with a career-high 35 points on 11-of-18 shooting including five made triples and a near-perfect 8-of-9 from the charity stripe.

Even so, a second-half surge from the Jayhawks stopped EWU’s Cinderella story in its tracks. Recovering from a tumultuous season and a bout of COVID-19, Kansas center David McCormack powered through a minutes restriction and questionable conditioning for 22 points. The 6-foot-10 big from the Bronx, NY exhausted the elder Groves brother in the pick-and-roll and by pounding the ball in the paint, barrelling into the chest of his 6-foot-9 opponent.

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It was a marvel to watch as the intensity of the matchup overcame the analytical approach taken by EWU in the first half. Trends of the sport suggest that spacing the floor and using big men at the 3-point line creates a more statistically valuable shot, but with their backs up against the wall, both sides found themselves fighting for buckets under the rim. It’s the natural progression of the sport in the highest-intensity situations at the collegiate level: Gameplans devolve and players fight for their lives near the basket.

Without much support to levy his performance, Tanner Graves, a Redshirt Junior from Spokane, was unable to sustain the workload necessary to beat a college basketball powerhouse like Kansas.

Sophomore point guard Michael Meadows added a modest 12 points along with eight assists to just two turnovers in the competition. Meadows was a standout performer for an EWU team looking for that additional spark anywhere it could find it. Look for him to expand on this performance moving forward as Meadows grows more comfortable in a lead ball-handler role.

The two sides tied on the boards and each took advantage of their opportunities at the free-throw line, but Kansas committed seven fewer turnovers than the Eagles did while making five more field goals. With five players in double figures, the Jayhawks’ depth proved to be overwhelming for the underdog Eagles. In spite of the loss, the Eagles left everything they had on the court in a matchup they were never supposed to win — There’s great merit in that.


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