Eagles record 20th victory of the season after making 6-of-8 free throws in the final 36 seconds
It's never easy on the road in the Big Sky Conference – even when you are gunning for your 20th win and trying to stay in first place in the Big Sky Conference standings.
Led by Venky Jois and some six free throws in the final 36 seconds, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team defeated Southern Utah 78-75 on Thursday (Feb. 19) in Cedar City, Utah. Although Eastern is hoping the regular season yields much more, the victory clinched a berth in the Big Sky Tournament for the Eagles after a two-year hiatus.
"One of our goals for this team this season was to be a 20-win team," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "I'm really happy the team hit that mark, and we still have five games to improve on that."
The win, Eastern's fifth in six tries on the road in the Big Sky this season, helped improve EWU to 11-2 in the Big Sky and 20-6 overall. Jois, who missed EWU's last game because of nagging ankle injury, scored 22 points for the Eagles in his best game since January. The Eagles sank 6-of-8 free throws in the final 36 seconds to hold-off SUU, which made 52 percent of its shots and was coming off a pair of road wins of its own.
"Road wins are a special commodity," added Hayford. "We played Southern Utah while they were playing at their best – they were playing inspired and really shot the ball really well. It was a great win."
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.
Won-Lost Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 11-2 in the Big Sky and 20-6 on the season – equaling the school record for NCAA Division I victories – and were ranked 14th in this week's Collegeinsider.com mid-major poll. Eastern has 12 victories in its last 14 games.
* Southern Utah is now 7-17 overall and 4-9 in the Big Sky after coming off a pair of impressive road victories.
* The Eagles are 5-4 all-time against Southern Utah (3-1 in Cheney, 2-3 in Cedar City). Last season, the Eagles won 90-83 at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash., then triumphed in Cedar City by an 85-74 score.
What It Means . . .
* Eastern won the front end of a difficult road trip in venues where EWU is a combined 9-24. The Eagles won last year's meeting in Cedar City, but had lost the last three games there. Eastern is 8-21 all-time at NAU, and fell versus Northern Arizona in Flagstaff a year ago, marking EWU's eighth loss in the last 10 games at Northern Arizona.
What's Next . . .
* After an overnight bus trek to Flagstaff, Ariz., the Eagles practice Friday before playing a Saturday (Feb. 21) afternoon game at Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks, now 14-12 overall and 9-4 in the league, have won six of their last seven games, including a 72-65 win over Idaho Thursday. Following that game, Eastern plays its final home games of the regular season when Montana State and Montana visit on Feb. 26 and 28, respectively. Eastern defeated both of those teams on the road earlier this month for EWU's first league road sweep since 2004.
Tweet of the Game . . .
Keys to Game . . .
* Eastern forced 15 Southern Utah turnovers and equaled a season-high with 10 steals, including two each by Venky Jois, Bogdan Bliznyuk and Felix Von Hofe. The Eagles had a 25-10 advantage in points off turnovers. The Eagles were guilty of only seven turnovers, equaling its best performance since having a season-low five versus Eastern Oregon in November.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior Venky Jois, who missed EWU's last game with a nagging ankle injury, finished with 22 points for his highest scoring output since scoring 23 versus Cal on Dec. 19. He made 8-of-12 shots from the field and 6-of-8 from the free throw line, and did not play in EWU's two league losses this season.
* Sophomore Felix Von Hofe came off the bench to score nine points in the first half and finished with 11. He made a pair of 3-pointers and was 4-of-6 from the field overall.
* True freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk also had a big game off the bench, making 4-of-5 shots from the field to finish with 11 points and seven rebounds.
* Senior point guard Drew Brandon had six assists and finished with 10 points, but was just 2-of-7 from the field and made 6-of-10 free throws.
* A pair of late free throws by junior Tyler Harvey extended his string of scoring in double figures to 33. He finished with 11 points, but made just 3-of-16 shots from the field (1-of-4 from the 3-point stripe).
Turning Point . . .
* In a see-saw game of runs that included five ties and four lead changes, Southern Utah rallied from a 10-point second half deficit to take a 61-58 lead with 8:49 to play. But EWU held the Thunderbirds scoreless for the next five minutes and without a field goal for 6:33. The Eagles took the lead for good on a layup by Felix Von Hofe at the 4:12 mark. Baskets by Venky Jois (3:16) and Bogdan Bliznyuk (:42), as well as free throws, helped EWU maintain the advantage.
Key Stats . . .
* Parker Kelly made the 200th 3-pointer in his career against Southern Utah, and now is ranked 18th in Big Sky history and second all-time at Eastern behind teammate Tyler Harvey. Kelly is now just 41 points from becoming the 19th player in EWU history – and third this season – to go over the 1,000-point mark in his career. Now with 117 games played to rank fourth in Eastern history, Kelly could set the school record for games played when his four-year career ends later this season (the record is 121).
* One game after having season-lows at home for shooting percentage overall (38.2 percent) and from the 3-point stripe (28.0 percent), Eastern also struggled against the Thunderbirds. The Eagles made 43 percent from the field, including 7-of-18 from the 3-point stripe (38.9 percent). Eastern is 16-1 this season when making at least 45.0 percent of its shots, and 4-5 in the nine times they've shot under that mark.
Team Highlights . . .
* After trailing 38-34 at halftime, Eastern's offense came alive to outscore the Thunderbirds 13-4 to open the second half. Parker Kelly scored the last six points, including a 3-point play that gave EWU a 48-42 lead with 15:14 remaining. Later, EWU scored 10-straight points, and a 3-pointer by Tyler Harvey gave EWU a 52-42 lead with 14:27 to play.
Notables . . .
* The Eagles are now 20-6 overall, equaling the school record for its most victories since becoming a NCAA Division I member in the 1983-84 season. Eastern has now been a DI member for 32 seasons, and the high-water mark was a 20-8 record as an independent in the 1985-86 season.
More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .
On Finding Ways to Win: ""When you have a 20-win season, that means your team is finding ways to win. In the second half we did a really good job of holding our scout and knowing their plays. And that was the difference because they out-rebounded us and they out-shot us. We had some guys who really struggled, but we forced turnovers and we had that big lead in the second half. We needed every bit of that cushion because they came back and took the lead on us. And Venky was very, very special down the stretch."
On Bench Contributions: "Bogdan came up with a clutch basket at the end and played well on the boards. And Felix gave us some points we really needed."
On 10 Steals: "If we don't get those 10 steals we don't win tonight. That was the only stat I could see where there was a big difference for us. It was a close game."
On Preserving Lead Down the Stretch: "We won the last four minutes, and that comes from experience. We've been on both sides with that. We've figured out how to play really well in the last four minutes. I'm really proud of our players."
On Saturday's EWU-NAU Game: "We'll be ready to go. We've been taking everybody's best punch since we beat Indiana. That's what we want – we want teams to be excited to play Eastern. We thank all the Eagle fans for staying with us while we have built this program. The neat thing is that every team in the league would trade positions with us right now."