Lumberjacks score last five points of the game, all at the line, to hand Eagles just their third league loss
With 17 lead changes and 11 ties, this was a classic Big Sky Conference men's basketball showdown that could have gone either way.
Eastern Washington University rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half, but missed its final five shots and Northern Arizona scored the final five points of the game at the free throw line to beat EWU 73-69 Saturday (Feb. 21) at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz.
The trio of Tyler Harvey, Venky Jois and Bogdan Bliznyuk combined for 53 of EWU's 69 points, but Eastern couldn't overcome 38.3 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent marksmanship from the 3-point arc (8-of-32). The Eagles took their final lead of the game at 69-68 with 3:15 to play, but EWU missed its last five shots, including a trio of open 3-pointers.
"I'm really proud of our team for fighting and battling back to get the lead," said Hayford. "For this to be a one-possession game shows that we were able to battle. We had some key guys for us have a really, really hard night offensively."
The Lumberjacks, now 15-12 overall and 10-4 in the league, have won seven of their last eight games to pull within one game of the 11-3 Eagles. Now 20-7, Eastern picked up its 20th win– equaling its most in 32 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I – in a 78-75 road win over Southern Utah two days earlier. Eastern came up short Saturday in its first attempt to equal a school record with its 12th Big Sky victory.
"It was just a really, really basketball game, and that's why it came right down to the end," added Hayford. "It was a great atmosphere – we just weren't on the side we want to be on."
Won-Lost Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 11-3 in the Big Sky and 20-7 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 still has won 12 times in its last 15 games.
* Northern Arizona was just 8-11 overall and 3-3 in league play in January, but has now won seven of its last eight to improve to 15-12 overall and 10-4 in the league.
* Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are 27-35 versus Northern Arizona, including an 8-22 record in Flagstaff, Ariz., 18-12 in Cheney and 1-1 on neutral courts. Eastern trails in the all-time series 27-36 (8-22 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.
What It Means . . .
* Northern Arizona's win tightens the top of the league race, as EWU, NAU, Sacramento State and Montana have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack. Eastern has already wrapped up one of eight berths in the Big Sky Conference Tournament on March 12-14 at the site of the regular season champion. Eastern has four games remaining – two at home followed by two on the road. Last year, the Eagles were 15-16 overall and missed the Big Sky Conference Tournament with a 10-10 league mark.
What's Next . . .
* 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.
Keys to Game . . .
* The Eagles had some hot stretches, but couldn't overcome their third-straight shooting performance of less than 44 percent overall and 39 percent from the 3-point stripe. Eastern sank just 38.3 percent of its shots from the field against NAU, including only 8-of-32 3-pointers (25 percent).
Top Performers . . .
* Junior Tyler Harvey had his 17th 20-point performance of the season and 37th of his career with 22 points, but made only 3-of-13 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. He was 3-of-6 from inside the arc and sank 7-of-9 free throws.
* True freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk came off the bench to score 16 for the Eagles on 6-of-11 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 from the free throw line. He also had a team-high six rebounds.
* Senior Venky Jois played only 28 minutes before fouling out with 2:21 to play, but made 5-of-9 shots from the field and 5-of-7 free throws to finish with 15 points. He did not play in EWU's previous two league losses this season because of a sprained ankle.
* Senior point guard Drew Brandon chipped in five points, six rebounds, three steals, two assists and two blocked shots, but was also in foul trouble and played 30 minutes.
Turning Point . . .
* After an 8-0 run rallied EWU from a 10-point deficit in the second half, the Eagles made 4-of-6 three-pointers to regain a 60-59 lead with 6:16 left. Tyler Harvey hit the first two triples, then Parker Kelly and Bogdan Bilznyuk each made one. Eastern, however, was just 4-of-20 from the arc prior to that point and only 0-of-6 after that surge.
Key Stats . . .
* Northern Arizona made 9-of-18 3-point shots, including four by Aaseem Dixon, who finished with a game-high 23 points. Kris Yanku added 19 points on 12-of-13 shooting from the free throw line and had eight assists for NAU. The Lumberjacks made 20-of-22 free throws for 90.9 percent while EWU was 15-of-20 for 75 percent.
Team Highlights . . .
* The Eagles overcame an early 5 1/2 minute scoreless stretch and used a defense to rally from an eight-point deficit. Eastern held the Lumberjacks without a field goal for 6:22, including a 4:08 stretch without a point. A 10-0 run gave the Eagles a 22-20 lead with 3:20 left in the half, and EWU had a slim 32-29 advantage at halftime.
* Knotted 35-all early in the second half, the Lumberjacks went on a 15-5 run to take a 10-point lead, but Bogdan Bliznyuk did his best to erase that. He made three baskets during an 8-0 Eastern run to pull EWU within a two points.
Notables . . .
* Despite the loss, EWU is still 8-6 on the road this season and 5-2 on the road in league play. In the last two seasons, EWU was just 5-25 on the road, and in the last seven were 21-90 (19 percent). Eastern hasn't had a winning season on the road since going 7-6 in the 1999-2000 school year. Earlier this season at Montana and Montana State, Eastern had its first Big Sky road sweep since 2004 (versus the same two teams).
* 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.
More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .
On Northern Arizona Game: "They are a game out (of first place) and are playing as well as anybody. We were close, we just have to fine-tune our game to make sure we have some better shooting percentages. Credit Northern Arizona – they had great guard play. Yanku's penetration really hurt us. He got in deep and couldn't finish though – we did a really good of helping on him. Give Dixon credit for making those big shots for them."
On Last Two Minutes: "We didn't make winning plays in the last two minutes when it really mattered. We had great fight to get in that position and we got some great looks, and that's part of basketball. But we have to make those shots. They weren't bad shots – they were wide-open shots. If we make one of those, the lead is ours and the pressure shifts. They just made one or two more plays than we did, and they get credit for the win."