Eastern’s Defense – Again – Helps Eagles Take Over First Place in the Big Sky

Eastern’s Defense – Again – Helps Eagles Take Over First Place in the Big Sky

Eagles open a 16-point lead with seven minutes left, then holds off a late Hornet rally for a 64-61 victory in league showdown

The Eagles needed every bit of their 16-point lead against a feisty bunch of Hornets.

Eastern Washington University held off Sacramento State down the stretch to take over first place in the Big Sky Conference Standings with a 64-61 victory Thursday (Feb. 12) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. A crowd of 3,114 was on hand, Eastern's best attendance total since Jan. 28, 2012 versus Montana State (3,617).

The victory puts 10-1 Eastern Washington a half-game ahead of 10-2 Sac State at the top of the league race. The Eagles avenged a 90-77 loss to the Hornets in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 17 when Sac State made a blistering 63 percent of its shots in the game and 73 percent in the second half.

This time, the Eagles held the Hornets to 41 percent shooting from the field, as the Eagles had a season-high 13 blocked shots – just three away from the school record. Eastern, however, helped keep the Hornets in the game with its second-most turnovers of the season with 17.

"Because we have been a high-scoring team all year, our defense has been called into question and now this is three-straight games where our defense has helped us win games," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford, whose team has won five in a row since the loss to the Hornets. "We held them to 10 percent under what they are normally shooting on the year and forced 14 turnovers. I think it was a real good performance."

For the third-straight game, the leading scorer in NCAA Division I – Tyler Harvey – did not play because of a quadriceps contusion. But Eastern had three players score in double figures, including Drew Brandon, who sank two free throws with three seconds to play to provide the final margin.

Bit by injuries this season and still managing to win 19 of 24 games, the latest loss for the Eagles is freshman guard Sir Washington, who has suffered a season-ending knee injury. He was averaging 10.1 minutes and 2.5 points off the bench for the Eagles.

Now with 11 victories in their last 12 games, Eastern hosts Portland State on Saturday at 2:05 p.m.


Won-Lost Records . . .  

The Eagles are now 19-5 on the season – one away from the school record for NCAA Division I victories – and are ranked a season-high 12th in this week's Collegeinsider.com mid-major poll. Eastern has matched the 2003-04 Eagle team with a 10-1 start in Big Sky play.

* Sacramento State fell to 16-7 overall and 10-2 in the league, and are a season-high 14th in the mid-major poll.

* Eagles are a perfect 12-0 at home at Reese Court and the Hornets are now 5-6 in road games.


What It Means . . .

* The victory put Eastern back in control of its own destiny to capture the Big Sky Conference title, and kept Sacramento State from earning a tiebreaker advantage. Eastern now has 11 victories in its last 12 games, while Sac State has won 11 of its last 13 with a seven-game winning streak snapped versus Eastern. The lone league loss for the Hornets was an 84-73 road loss at Northern Colorado.

* Both the Eagles and Hornets are on track to have their best league seasons in their histories. Eastern is chasing the 12 league victories the 1999-2000 Eagle squad had, and the Eagles have already exceeded the 17 victories overall the 2000-04 NCAA Tournament team had. Sacramento State has already recorded its most victories since becoming a NCAA Division I member 20 years ago in 1991.

* The league schedule continues through early March, with the top eight teams qualifying for the Big Sky Conference Tournament on March 12-14 at the site of the regular season champion. Last year, the Eagles were 15-16 overall and missed the Big Sky Conference Tournament with a 10-10 league mark. Sac State closed the year 14-16 overall and was also 10-10 in the league to edge out EWU for the seventh and final berth in the Big Sky Conference Tournament.


What's Next . . .

* Eastern hosts Portland State on Saturday at 2:05 p.m. in a rematch of a 92-85 Eagle win in Portland on Jan. 15. The game may be heard live via radio on 700-AM ESPN and via the web at www.700espon.com. It may also be viewed via www.watchbigsky.com and via "Watch Big Sky" mobile phone apps. The Portland State game will be televised regionally by SWX.


Tweet of the Game . . .


Keys to Game . . .

 * Eastern led the entire way against a Sac State team that entered the game as the Big Sky's top shooting team at 49.3 percent. The Hornets made only 31 percent of their shots in the first half, and finished at 40.7 percent for the game. The Eagles made 47.8 percent, including 52.2 percent in the second half. Five of EWU's 13 blocks were recorded by sub Garrett Moon, who also had a steal, two points and two rebounds.


Top Performers . . .

* Senior point guard Drew Brandon, the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week two weeks running, finished with 13 points, five rebounds and three assists, and ended the game with a steal on Sac State's final length-of-the-court pass.

* Sophomore Ognjen Miljkovic led the Eagles with 16 points, and also had four rebounds a pair of blocks.

* Senior Parker Kelly made 5-of-8 3-pointers and finished the game with 15 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two assists.

* Junior Venky Jois chipped in seven points, six rebounds, a team-high five assists and two blocked shots.

* True freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk had six points, three rebounds and three assists.

* Sophomore Felix Von Hofe, who started his third-straight game in place of the injured Tyler Harvey, had five points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field.


Turning Point . . .

* After Sacramento State cut Eastern's seven-point halftime lead to five early in the second half, Eastern went on an 8-0 run that ended with a three-point play by Drew Brandon with 15:19 left. The Eagles took a 16-point lead with 7:01 remaining on a basket by Venky Jois, then held on after that. The Hornets used its pressing, trapping defense to out-score Eastern 19-6 the rest of the game. Eastern had only two field goals in the last seven minutes, with baskets by Bogdan Bliznyuk with 4:49 left and a layin by Garrett  Moon with 1:16 to play.


Key Stats . . .

* The Eagles sank 12-of-23 3-pointers in the game, compared to an 8-of-18 performance by the Hornets. Both teams finished with 22 total field goals, and Sac State sank one more free throw.

* Senior point guard Drew Brandon made all five of his free throws and Felix Von Hofe sank both of his for the Eagles, but the rest of the team was just 1-of-6 from the charity stripe. In the last 7:30, Eastern missed the front end of two one-plus-one bonus opportunities, plus missed two other free throws.


Team Highlights . . .

* Eastern jumped out to an early 8-2 lead, then used an 8-0 run to go up 22-13 with 11:50 in the first half. Eastern led by as many as 10 in the half.


Notables . . .

* Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are now 28-14 versus Sacramento State, and the two schools did not play against each other prior to that. The Eagles have won 21 of their last 31 games against the Hornets, and have an 18-3 record versus Sacramento State in Cheney and a 10-11 record in Sacramento.


More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .

Opening statement: "We were saved by the three-point shot. We had a lot more turnovers than we wanted and poor free throw shooting when we wanted it, but we shot the ball real well from outside. Sacramento State is a really solid team. When you think about these two teams on top of the Big Sky standings right now, there is no one on Brian's roster or my roster that had a scholarship offer from another Division I school. You have to evaluate right and you have to develop your players, and so I really respect everything he has done with his program. I am really proud of my team getting their 19th win here tonight."

On Playing Close Games: "I am not so sure that we played well tonight but we won. I think OG was really good offensively, and I thought Parker really stepped up to lead us and put the ball in the basket. What we do have is some maturity and, believe me, the last couple of years we paid the price to get maturity. The hard part of experience is getting it and we have been on the wrong side of some of these close games. I think our guys learned they didn't like it and decided this is a lot more fun."

On Track for Big Sky Title: "It's still too early to think about it, we still have four Big Sky road games left. Anything can happen on the road in the Big Sky -- it's crazy -- it is the Wild West. Our whole mindset with the guys is, 'who are we playing. Let's put them behind us in the standings.' I think the guys have took it a little personal that Sacramento State had been making such a big deal about being in first place when we were equal in the loss column -- they just played more games. That kind of went with our theme of let's just take the next team and put them behind us."

On Parker: "We moved him to a different spot he has never played in the press break to kind of calm down the craziness. Parker is the third fourth-year senior in the last 10 years at Eastern, and he is my first four-year senior. He did everything you would want out of a veteran. I think he kind of calmed the storm, just his presence.  He told me walking down here that he thought he had the dagger on the last three he missed. He thought he had the dagger and I am glad he saved that for latter in the season."

On Tyler Harvey: "He probably could have gone tonight, but when you are in the Big Sky you need to be your best in the Big Sky Tournament. I don't want this injury to get aggravated, so it is something he has taken with him the whole month. He is like, 'hey coach I am playing Saturday'. So we will see how he responds after yesterday's practice, but I am going to err on the side of patience with such a special player. When we really need him is if we are fortunate enough to play those three games in March."

On Portland State: "Portland State is a real dangerous team -- they can really score and they swept us last year. Our theme since we got left out of the Big Sky Tournament last year was leave no doubt. Right on top of that list of teams that might have gotten in the way of us having the season we wanted last year was Portland State. So I know the guys will be ready."

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