Eastern holds off Idaho State 85-81 after opening 19 point lead early in the second half, and coupled with Sac State's loss, three teams will enter Saturday in Big Sky lead at 13-4
The Big Sky Conference title is in sight for the Eagles.
A 3-point shooting barrage in the first half helped the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team take a 41-26 lead at halftime, and the Eagles went on to hold off Idaho State 85-81 Thursday (March 5) in a Big Sky Conference men's basketball game at Holt Arena.
Coupled with Southern Utah's 69-65 victory over Sacramento State, EWU will enter Saturday's action tied with Sac State and Montana for the league lead and a chance to win at least a share the Big Sky title. The Eagles close the regular season Saturday at 6:05 p.m. Pacific time at Weber State (13-15, 8-9), a 74-63 winner over Idaho on Thursday.
Eastern opened a 19-point lead in the second half, but then had to make 11-of-14 free throws in the final 6:37. A clutch 3-pointer by Felix Von Hofe with 18 seconds to play was the key basket down the stretch. Most importantly, the Eagles made their last three field goals, one game after missing their last four in a 77-76 home loss to Montana.
"I've always said I'll take a one-point win," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "Winning No. 22 and getting a Big Sky road win is great."
"Winning on the road in the Big Sky is tough," he added. "They got momentum, we got in foul trouble and they were scoring. But we hung on and we hung on. Felix made a really big shot for us, but obviously we have to play better defense. They also hit some big, tough shots."
Juniors Tyler Harvey and Venky Jois combined for 45 points for the Eagles, who improved to 13-4 in the Big Sky and 22-8 overall. Harvey scored 24 points to give him 1,446 in his career, moving past Rodney Stuckey (1,420) into fourth on EWU's all-time leaders list. He also made five 3-pointers, pulling him to within one of the school record of 109 he set last year to rank as the second-most in league history. The Big Sky record is 124 set by Stephen Sir of Northern Arizona in 2007.
Jois had 21 points and 10 rebounds for his third-straight double-double, sixth this season and 24th of his career. Senior point guard Drew Brandon also had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, and added five assists. Brandon now has seven double-doubles this season and 12 in his two-year career.
The Big Sky Tournament begins on March 12 with four games – in order, No. 2 versus No. 7, No. 3 versus No. 6; No. 4 versus No. 5 and the regular season champion versus the No. 8 seed. Eastern still could finish first, second or third in the final standings, and could host if EWU wins and both the Hornets and Grizzlies lose on Saturday.
"What a great race that it comes down to the very last day," said Hayford. "I certainly would have taken that at the beginning of the season – to be told we going into our last game tied for first place. I definitely would have taken it. We did what we had to do and came out of here with a win."
Last year, the Eagles were 15-16 overall and missed the Big Sky Conference Tournament with a 10-10 league mark.
Won-Lost Records . . .
* Now 22-8 on the season and 13-4 in the league, EWU owns school records for overall and Big Sky victories in 32 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I. The Eagles are 13-2 this season at Reese Court – its best home record in nearly 30 seasons. Eastern has won 14 times in its last 18 games.
* Idaho State fell to 6-23 overall and 3-14 in the Big Sky. Earlier this season, Idaho State lost 65-57 to EWU in Cheney.
* Eastern is now 42-28 all-time against ISU, and is 11-19 on the road and 27-7 at home (1-1 at neutral sites) since becoming a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season. The Eagles have won 11 of the last 12 meetings, with an eight-game winning streak snapped in the 2013-14 season when the Bengals prevailed 72-83 in Pocatello. Eastern won 65-57 at home earlier this season, extending EWU's home winning streak versus ISU to 13 games dating back to a 65-63 loss on March 1, 2003.
What It Means . . .
* Eastern could still host the Big Sky Conference Tournament on March 12-14, but only if EWU wins at Weber State, and Sacramento State loses at Northern Arizona and Montana loses at Montana State. Any other combination of wins or losses between those three teams will send the tournament to Sacramento or Missoula.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern closes the regular season when it plays Weber State on March 7. Eastern defeated the Wildcats 84-78 to open the league season on Jan. 1.
Tweets of the Game . . .
Keys to Game . . .
* The Eagles trailed for only one minute in the game, as their hot shooting opened up an early lead. Tyler Harvey had four 3-pointers in the first 11 minutes, helping EWU open a 25-21 lead. But then EWU held ISU to five points the rest of the half to lead 41-26 at intermission.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior Venky Jois made 8-of-10 shots from the field and 5-of-10 from the free throw line to finish with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
* Junior Tyler Harvey made five of his first six 3-point attempts and finished with 24 points on 7-of-17 shooting from the field overall, 5-of-12 from the 3-point line and 5-of-6 from the free throw line.
* Senior point guard Drew Brandon finished with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, and also had 10 rebounds and five assists.
* True freshman Bogdan Bilznyuk chipped in 10 points and five rebounds in just 16 minutes before fouling out.
* Senior Parker Kelly added eight points, giving him 986 points in his career – just 14 from the coveted 1,000-point mark.
Turning Point . . .
* After Idaho State used a 3-pointer to cut EWU's lead to 80-79 with 49 seconds to play, sophomore Felix Von Hofe responded with a trey of his own to help EWU regain a two-possession lead. Drew Brandon clinched it for the Eagles with a pair of free throws with eight seconds left. A basket by Venky Jois with 1:24 left and a 3-point play by Bogdan Bliznyuk at the 3:38 mark were key baskets down the stretch for EWU.
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern made 46.8 percent of its field goal attempts, improving to 18-2 this season when it makes at least 45 percent. Eastern scored 44 points and shot at a 56.5 percent clip in the second half, however, Idaho State made 69.2 percent of its shots in the second half and scored 55 points. In the first half, Eastern held ISU to 32.1 percent shooting and 26 points.
Team Highlights . . .
* Eastern made 12-of-33 3-pointers in the game for 36.4 percent. More importantly, the Eagles made 8-of-22 in the first half, as Tyler Harvey made five of his first six attempts.
Notables . . .
* Senior Parker Kelly played in his 121st game as an Eagle at Idaho State to equal the school record of 121 set by Jeffrey Forbes from 2010-13. Kelly is the top 3-point shooter in EWU history not named Tyler Harvey. Kelly has 206 triples in his career, more than the 184 by former record holder Marc Axton (2002-05), who was passed by Harvey earlier this season (Harvey has a current total of 240 to move into 10th in league history). Kelly's 206 treys ranks 17th in Big Sky Conference history, and he is now just 14 points from becoming the 19th player in EWU history – and third this season – to go over the 1,000-point mark in his career.
* Tyler Harvey is climbing EWU and the Big Sky single season 3-pointers lists, with 109 this season to equal the second-most in school history and rank third all-time in the Big Sky. Harvey holds the school record with 109 a year ago (second in league history), and Eagle Shannon Taylor made 103 in the 1998-99 season.
More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .
On Idaho State Win: "We played a really good first half to hold them to 32 percent. We knew we needed to have a good punch in the first five minutes of the second half and we did that. Then they got out of their zone and went to man. Our offense was good in the second half, but we're going to have to play better defense on Saturday night. We scored enough points in the second half – 44 is a enough and is a great number. But their 55 in the second half is what will keep up all night."
On 3-Point Shooting: "Tyler was above 40 percent and if he's above 40 percent we're going to win games. I'm glad Felix made that last one – it was the biggest shot of his career."
On Venky Jois: "We were running a lot of offense through him. He's still in a lot of pain (with his ankle sprain) and my hat is off to him. But for him to get his third-straight double-double shows that he's a fighter."