Saturday night was gut check time for the men’s basketball team. For the first time in over two months, the Vikings found themselves trailing late in the second half on their home court.
With under six minutes remaining, a 20-4 Eastern Washington scoring run had turned a 10-point Viking lead into a six-point deficit. The Vikings’ second leading scorer was scoreless. The team’s starting forward had fouled out and Eastern had silenced the sell-out crowd at the Stott Center.
Things looked bad.
But, faced with the prospect of losing to the Eastern Washington Eagles and falling out of first place, the Vikings found the right combination of defense, intensity and clutch baskets to eke out a 71-70 victory that allowed the 1500-plus on hand at the Stott Center to catch their collective breath and revel in what has become a magical season for PSU basketball.
After 10 straight home victories by 11 or more points each, the Vikings had to fight until the very last second to ensure the win and another week in first place.
Viking captain Seamus Boxley showed he was ready to fight with 14 points in a back-and-forth first half that saw nine lead changes and eight ties. "They’ve got some big boys down there," said Boxley, "but I was able to get some deep touches and finished all right."
Despite Boxley’s dominance and a hot start by point guard Will Funn, the game was tied 37-37 heading into the second half and both teams seemed to be struggling to find a way to break open the game.
Consecutive Josh Neeley three-pointers eight minutes into the second half gave the team a 10-point lead, the largest in the game, and seemed to have done the trick, but the Eagles refused to die.
The rhythm the Vikings had used to build their lead abandoned them and two Neeley turnovers and three missed free-throws by Boxley helped the Eagles claw back and build a six-point lead with 5:59 remaining.
The raucous Stott Center crowd was silent, many likely thinking back to the numerous similar games at the Stott Center last year when PSU faded down the stretch and lost games it should have won.
Head coach Heath Schroyer knew that something was different about this year’s team. "They’ve grown up. They truly understand our system and what we do in certain situations. When you’re prepared you shouldn’t panic."
"The biggest thing I talked about in the huddles was that we’re going to find a way to win. That’s what I kept saying, ‘We’re going to find a way to win the game. Let’s start and get one stop at a time.’"
A big part of the "way" came in the form of shooting guard Jake Schroeder. Suited up for the first time since breaking his foot in a game three weeks earlier, Schroeder watched Schroyer and his staff expectantly from the closest seat on the bench for most of the game, hoping to get in. After 34 minutes of waiting, Schroeder got his chance.
"I went into the game prepared to play him but I wasn’t expecting to," Schroyer said afterwards. "I had a feeling sitting there that Jake was due. I thought he could come in and give us a spark."
Schroeder took advantage of EWU’s defense, collapsing on Boxley and draining his first and only shot attempt, a long three-pointer, to tie the game at 64-64 with five minutes left.
"Jake is a star," said Boxley. "He’s tough, man – that’s what you want from your vets."
Marc Axton put the Eagles back on top with a three-pointer for three of his team-leading 16 points, but the Vikings then ran off five straight points to take a 69-67 lead with 1:16 remaining and bring the entire crowd to its feet.
Ignoring the roar of the crowd and the jeers of "Frodo Baggins" from the student section, Eagles freshman point guard James Loe found himself open atop the key, looked around and buried a three-pointer to retake the lead 70-69.
"I was supposed to get it to Ax," said Loe, who led Hillsboro High to last year’s state championship. "But they both followed him. We were down, so I just let it go."
Refusing to be showed up on his home court, Boxley answered right back with a layup over Eagles big man Jake Beitinger for his second consecutive bucket and a 71-70 lead with 36 seconds remaining.
During an Eagles timeout, Schroyer confidently told the team, "This is what we’ve practiced all along. This is what we hang our hat on. Dig down, get yourself in a stance, communicate and let’s get a stop."
The Eagles got the ball in but couldn’t find an open shot. Blake Walker, playing with the lingering pain from having a wisdom tooth extracted four days earlier, managed to bat an Eagles pass out of bounds with four seconds left.
The Eagles set to inbound from in front of their bench but couldn’t figure out the Vikings’ rotating defense. They eventually got the ball in to Loe, hoping the freshman could again silence the raucous crowd. Schroeder, Funn and Neeley made sure that didn’t happen with a swarming trapping defense.
Schroeder tied Loe up for a jump ball with three-tenths of a second remaining. The possession arrow pointed the Vikings’ way, giving PSU the ball and its most hard-fought victory of the season.