Eagles Ready to Take NAU's Best Shot in Game Matching Teams With a Collective 20-6 League Record
Saturday, February 21 - Walkup Skydome (7,000) - Flagstaff, Ariz.
1:05 p.m. Pacific - Eastern Washington (20-6/11-2 Big Sky) at Northern Arizona (14-12/9-4 Big Sky)
TV: NAU game televised live regionally by Fox College Sports AZ (Dish channel 415, DirecTV channel 686)
Webcast: All Big Sky games are carried at http://www.watchbigsky.com and via the new iphone/android app "Watch Big Sky"
Radio: All Eastern games are on 700-AM ESPN in Spokane. Larry Weir returns for his 22nd season calling the play-by-play, starting 20 minutes prior to tipoff.
Internet Radio: www.700espn.com or www.tunein.com
Radio iPhone App: Search for "Spokane Radio" and download app. An app is also available for tunein radio.
Live Stats: NAU Click Here; ewustats.com (EWU home games).
Hit me with your best shot.
That's how the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team and head coach Jim Hayford are approaching this Saturday's (Feb. 21) Big Sky Conference showdown against red-hot Northern Arizona at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Tipoff is at 1:05 p.m. Pacific time in a game televised via FOX College Sports AZ (Dish channel 415, DirecTV channel 686). The game may also 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 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 on Thursday. Eastern, meanwhile, has won 12 of its last 14 games and picked up an important road win, 78-75 at Southern Utah on Thursday.
Leading the Big Sky at 11-2, it was EWU's 20th win overall – equaling its most in 32 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I. On Saturday, Eastern will try to equal a school record with its 12th Big Sky victory.
"We'll be ready to go," vowed Hayford. "We've been taking everybody's best punch since we beat Indiana (an 88-86 win on Nov. 24). That's what we want – we want teams to be excited to play Eastern."
The Eagles, coming off a home split last week, are now 5-1 on the road and 6-1 at home during league play. Eastern's lead is precarious, with just two games separating first from fourth (NAU) in the standings. Furthermore, three of EWU's final five games are away from the comfy confines of Reese Court, but the Eagles are nonetheless assured of the Big Sky Conference Tournament berth that eluded EWU the last two seasons.
"We thank all the Eagle fans for staying with us while we have built this program," Hayford added. "The neat thing is that every team in the league would trade positions with us right now."
Northern Arizona was just 8-11 overall and 3-3 in league play in January, but has won six of its last seven heading into Saturday's game. The Lumberjacks fell at Idaho State 80-66 last week before rebounding for a 61-54 win at Weber State. Senior 6-foot-5 guard Quinton Upshur is averaging 15.5 points per game on the season, but has bumped that up to 17.5 during league play.
Eastern fell in Flagstaff a year ago, marking EWU's eighth loss in the last 10 games at Northern Arizona. Eastern is 8-21 all-time at NAU.
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.
* Following Saturday's 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.
EWU vs. Northern Arizona Series Notes
* Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are 27-34 versus Northern Arizona, including an 8-21 record in Flagstaff, Ariz., 18-12 in Cheney and 1-1 on neutral courts. Eastern trails in the all-time series 27-35 (8-21 in Flagstaff, 18-12 in Cheney, 1-2 neutral). The only meeting before Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I was an 84-80 NAU victory on Dec. 20, 1969, in Fresno, Calif.
* A year ago, Eastern lost in Flagstaff 84-65 before winning by the same score in Cheney a month later. The Eagles have lost 11 of the last 19 meetings, including eight of the last 10 games played in Flagstaff. In winning two games versus NAU in the 2000-2001 season, Eastern swept the regular season meetings with the Lumberjacks for the first time in 10 years. Eastern duplicated that feat in 2003 and 2004, and again in 2012 and 2013.
* Eastern had won six-straight games against the Lumberjacks and nine of the last 11 until falling 77-64 in Flagstaff on Feb. 5, 2005. The Lumberjacks beat EWU 105-95 on Jan. 5, 2006, in a game in which Eastern's Rodney Stuckey scored a school-record 45 points.
* Regaining its shooting eye is of importance for the Eagles, who were ranked eighth in NCAA Division I just four games ago. After having season-lows at home for shooting percentage overall (38.2 percent) and from the 3-point stripe (28.0 percent) in a loss to Portland State, Eastern also struggled at Southern Utah on Thursday (Feb. 19). The Eagles made 43 percent from the field, including 7-of-18 from the 3-point stripe (38.9 percent). After making 51.0 percent from the field and 11-of-24 3-pointers in a win at Montana on Feb. 5, the Eagles ranked eighth nationally at 49.4 percent, and were third in 3-point accuracy at 41.9 percent. Since then, EWU is shooting at a 40.7 percent clip overall and 37.0 percent from the 3-point arc. 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. Eastern is now 17th nationally in field goal shooting (48.2 percent) and is sixth in 3-point shooting (41.3 percent).
* The Eagles used the same starting lineup for 15 of their first 17 games this season, and was 11-4 in those 15 games. However, after injuries to its two leading scorers -- Venky Jois (ankle sprain) and Tyler Harvey (quadriceps contusion) – EWU was forced to use five different lineups in the next eight games. Eastern lost two of those games, with Jois missing both. The Eagles returned to their normal lineup on Feb. 19 versus Southern Utah, and the 78-75 victory made the grouping of Jois, Harvey, Drew Brandon, Parker Kelly and Ognjen Miljkovic 12-4 this season.
* The Eagles are now 20-6 overall, equaling their 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. Now in is 107th season of basketball, Eastern had 14 20-victory seasons as a member of the NAIA, but only four times did EWU exceed 23 wins (25 in 1976-77, 27 in 1944-45 and 1942-43 and a school-record 31 in 1945-46).
* The Eagles are just one league victory from the school record for Big Sky wins in a season, set in 1999-00 when the Eagles were 12-4, which included a 5-2 start followed by six-straight victories. Eastern's 10-1 start in the league this season equaled the school's best after 11 games in EWU's 28-year history as a member of the Big Sky Conference, but EWU came a win shy of becoming just the second to improve to 11-1. The 2003-04 team – EWU's only squad to advance to the NCAA Tournament -- lost its league opener, then won 11 straight before finishing 11-3. The 1989-90 squad was 6-1, then lost a pair of games en route to an 11-5 finish.
Eagle Player Notes
* 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).
* National award candidate Tyler Harvey, the leading scorer in NCAA Division I, has struggled shooting the ball since missing three games with a quadriceps contusion. He was just 5-of-15 from the field (2-of-12 from the 3-point stripe) in his first game back on Feb. 14 in a 68-66 loss to Portland State, then was 3-of-16 overall (1-of-4) in a 78-75 win at Southern Utah on Feb. 19 – a collective 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) overall and 3-of-16 (18.8 percent) from the 3-point stripe. He still leads NCAA Division I in scoring (22.8) and 3-pointers per game (4.09), but has slipped to seventh in 3-point accuracy (45.4 percent).
* Junior Venky Jois finished with 22 points at Southern Utah on Feb. 19 for his highest scoring output in exactly two months 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. Both of EWU's league losses this season have come when Jois has been held out because of a sprained ankle. He missed the PSU game on Feb. 14 after aggravating his injury in EWU's victory over Sacramento State two days earlier. He had missed the previous game in January versus Sac State – EWU's only other conference loss – as well as two other full games and parts of two others.
Southern Utah Recap
• Led by Venky Jois and six free throws in the final 36 seconds, Eastern defeated Southern Utah 78-75 on Feb. 19 in Cedar City, Utah, to clinch a berth in the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the Eagles after a two-year hiatus. 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 highest scoring game since Dec. 19. 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. Eastern won the front end of a difficult road trip in venues where EWU is a combined 9-24. Eastern forced 15 Southern Utah turnovers and equaled a season-high with 10 steals. The Eagles had a 25-10 advantage in points off turnovers and were guilty of only seven turnovers themselves, equaling its best performance since having a season-low five versus Eastern Oregon in November. 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 Jois (3:16) and Bogdan Bliznyuk (:42), as well as free throws, helped EWU maintain the advantage. 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. 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).
Quoting Coach Hayford
On SUU Win: "One of our goals for this team this season was to be a 20-win team. "I'm really happy the team hit that mark, and we still have five games to improve on that. Road wins are a special commodity. 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."
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."