Eagles secure No. 2 seed and will play Idaho next Thursday morning in Big Sky Tournament opener in Missoula
Forget not getting help in order to host the league tournament, winning a share of the Big Sky Conference co-championship is something very, very special for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team.
The Eagles rallied from 19 points down against Weber State and won in overtime 79-71 Saturday (March 7) in to wrap-up the Big Sky Conference regular season at the Dee Events Center. It's the third title for the EWU men's basketball program in 28 seasons as a member of the league.
"It just feels great to be Big Sky champs," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "It's everything that sports should be about. It's neat for our players to feel this joy of accomplishment. I'm extremely, extremely happy and proud of our players."
Eastern won for just the fifth time in 34 tries in Ogden, and completed as season sweep over the defending Big Sky regular season and tournament champions and preseason favorite. The Eagles also completed their second Big Sky road sweep of the season after having not accomplished that feat since 2004.
"It means a lot considering how far we've come from my freshman season to now in building this program," said Tyler Harvey, the leading scorer in NCAA Division I this season. "It's just awesome and we're blessed to be in this position. We're just enjoying it."
Eastern shares the league title with Montana, which beat Montana State 70-54 in Bozeman to also finish 14-4 in the league standings. The Grizzlies won the tiebreaker and will host next week's Big Sky Conference Tournament in Missoula. Had the Grizzlies lost to MSU, the tournament would have come to Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Eastern took its first lead in the game in overtime on a 3-pointer by Bogdan Bliznyuk, and EWU scored the final 10 points of the contest. Harvey led Eastern with 24 points and made four 3-pointers to break his own single season school record with a current total of 112. Venky Jois had his fourth-straight double-double with 22 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, with Bliznyuk and Felix Von Hofe coming off the bench to score 24 key points for EWU.
Eastern will open the tournament next Thursday (March 12) at 10 a.m. Pacific time versus Idaho in Missoula, where the Eagles are 1-0 this season with a 75-69 victory over the Grizzlies. The Eagles won at Idaho 89-86 before prevailing 98-95 in Cheney in another come-from-behind overtime victory in Cheney.
The Big Sky Tournament begins on March 12 with four games – in order, No. 2 Eastern versus No. 7 Idaho, No. 3 Sacramento State versus No. 6 Portland State; No. 4 Northern Arizona versus No. 5 Northern Colorado and tournament host Montana versus No. 8 seed Weber State.
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 23-8 on the season and 14-4 in the league, EWU owns school records for overall and Big Sky victories in 32 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I.
* Weber State, the defending regular season and tournament champion, is now 13-16 overall and finished 8-10 in the Big Sky. A loss by Southern Utah to Portland State Saturday secured the No. 8 seed for the Wildcats, who were the preseason pick to win the league title.
* Eastern is 22-45 all-time against Weber State, including a 15-16 home record. However, Eastern is just 5-29 all-time at Weber State and had lost the last four meetings there dating back to a 75-59 Eagle win on March 2, 2011. Until EWU won 84-78 earlier this season, the Wildcats had won the last seven meetings dating back to that 75-69 Eagle win in Ogden, Utah.
What It Means . . .
* The victory gave the Eagles their third regular season Big Sky title in school history, with the first coming in 1999-2000 when the Eagles also tied with Montana for the league title and played the tourney in Missoula. The other championship came in 2003-04 when the Eagles won the outright regular season championship and the tourney title.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern plays in its first Big Sky Conference Tournament game in three seasons when the Eagles play Idaho next Thursday (March 12) at 10 a.m. Pacific time. Eastern will be making its 13th Big Sky Conference Tournament appearance in 28 years as a member of the league, with a record of 8-11 in its 19 games.
Tweet of the Game . . .
Keys to Game . . .
* Once the Eagles fell behind by 19 in the first half – thanks to an 18-0 Weber State run and six-minute scoreless stretch by the EWU – Eastern used a full-court press and stepped up its urgency a notch. As a result, Eastern forced 18 turnovers – second-most this season – and had a season-high 18 offensive rebounds. The result was an 18-8 advantage in second chance points and a dominating 26-7 edge in points off turnovers.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior Venky Jois had the most rebounds for an Eagle this season, with a career-high total of 16 that equals the 15th-most in recorded school history. His previous high was 15 a year ago as a sophomore. Jois had his 16th 20-point performance of his career and ninth this season with 22 points on 11-of-19 shooting from the field.
* Junior Tyler Harvey made 9-of-23 shots overall and 4-of-10 from the 3-point stripe to finish with 24, his 21st performance this season with at least 20 and 41st of his career.
* True freshman Bogdan Bilznyuk came off the bench to score 14 points and grab seven rebounds.
* Sophomore Felix Von Hofe made a trio of 3-pointers – including a pair in the first half to help EWU cut EWU's deficit to 12 at halftime. He finished with 10 points.
* Senior point guard Drew Brandon added seven points, eight rebounds and three assists.
Turning Point . . .
* Trailing by 15 with 13:29 to play, Tyler Harvey made a trio of 3-pointers and scored 11 points during EWU's 13-2 run that cut the lead to four. Although Eastern wouldn't take the lead until overtime, EWU knotted the score at 59, 64, 66 and 69 – with Harvey providing the tying points the last two times.
Key Stats . . .
* After making only 32 percent of its shots in the first half, Eastern sank 50 percent after intermission. Eastern was just 2-of-14 from the 3-point stripe in the first 20 minutes, but then made five of its last eight.
Team Highlights . . .
* Eastern's best run of the day came at the end of the game, as EWU scored the final 10 points and held WSU scoreless for the last 2:56. A basket by Venky Jois tied the game at 71, then Bogdan Bliznyuk gave EWU the lead for good with a 3-pointer with 1:46 left. Harvey had four of EWU's final five points.
Notables . . .
* Tyler Harvey broke his own EWU single season 3-pointers record against Weber State, and now sets his sights on the Big Sky Conference. He has 112 this season to break the school record of 109 he set a year ago (second in league history). The record is 124 set by Northern Arizona's Stephen Sir in the 2006-07 season.
* Senior Parker Kelly played in his 122nd game as an Eagle at Weber State to break 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.
More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .
On How Big Sky Title Ranks in Successful Coaching Career: "That's easy -- this is the best title I've ever had at Eastern. I truly love these players – they just played their hearts out and had buy-in. It's the most dramatic, come-from-behind win I've seen in such a big game. This was the biggest game we've coached in at Eastern, and our players just fought and fought."
On Pre-game Talk & Comeback: "In our pre-game talk I told our guys that we deserved to go win the championship because they put in the hard work. The enemy of hard work is frustration and discouragement. I told them when they felt either of those two things, they needed to push it away because they had confidence in their hard work. I had no idea we would be 19 points down and miss a ton of good shots in the first 10 minutes. But we believed we could come back, and the guys believe in each other and they believe in themselves. They pushed away frustration and they didn't let discouragement set in -- they just kept working hard."
On Difference in Game: "We won because we forced 18 turnovers and had 18 offensive rebounds. Those are just nothing but hustle. We hit some clutch baskets and finally made some threes by Felix and Tyler, and then Bogdan made the big one. Venky had a huge night on the boards too."
On Press: "It's one thing to say you are going to do it, but it's all about the players – they are just laying their hearts out. If you don't press with reckless abandon and intelligence, you can look really stupid. But we combined great energy with great intelligence. Garrett Moon was chasing the ball wherever it was, and Felix (Von Hofe) was great at the front of the press."