So much for easing into conference play.
Eastern Washington did just that early in both halves Thursday night and it cost the Eagles dearly in a 74-53 loss in their Big Sky Conference men’s basketball opener against Weber State.
Perennial power Weber State probably wasn’t the best measuring stick for Jim Hayford’s young team: All five Wildcat starters are upperclassmen and their bench is one of the deepest in the conference.
That left a slim margin for error which nearly evaporated early as Weber State scored the first 11 points in front of 610 fans at Reese Court.
It happened again early in the second half. Still leading by those same 11 points at intermission, Weber State (5-3) outscored the Eagles 21-5 in the next eight minutes to put the game away early.
“They were more ready to play than we were,” Eastern head coach Jim Hayford said. “The bell’s going to be struck, and you better come out. They went across the ring and threw a hard punch at us.
“Maybe a few more hits to the jaw like that and you decide that’s not so much fun.”
Against a tough defense that took away their perimeter shooting – the Eagles were 4 of 16 from long range – they couldn’t make up the deficit inside.
They held their own on the boards in the first half, losing that battle only 23-18, but sent the Wildcats to the line 15 times.
Still, Eastern (2-9 overall) clawed back into the game late in the first half and trailed only 33-26 after Daniel Hill hit two free throws with 1:19 left. But Kyle Tresnak scored twice in the final 1:04, including a dunk with six seconds left to put Weber ahead 37-26 at halftime.
It got worse after intermission. A 3-pointer by Parker Kelly and a layup by Venky Jois were the only points Eastern could manage in the first eight minutes after intermission; Weber State had 21.
For the game, Eastern was 21 for 57 (36.8 percent) from the field, not surprising against a team that leads the conference in field-goal defense. Weber was 30 for 60 (50 percent).
“We probably let them have it too easy,” said Jois, who had a game-high 21 points. “It’s a bit frustrating, because we saw what we could do and didn’t execute.”
A case in point: Weber State freshman Joel Polomboy had three early blocks – two of them at rim level – but they were two sensational plays that shouldn’t have happened, Jois believes.
From watching film, Jois said that with Polomboy and other Wildcats, “You give them a little head fake and they go flying – that’s how I got half my points. We have to recognize that he was going to do that, but some of our guys didn’t recognize that.”
The balanced Wildcats led by as many as 27 late in the game. At one point in the second half, Weber State led 53-31 without having a scorer in double figures.
Hayford’s avowed goal is to be one of the seven teams (out of 11) who will qualify for the Big Sky tournament, so losing to the team picked second in the preseason polls probably didn’t hurt that goal.
The stakes will be higher on Saturday against Idaho State, which fell to 1-8 overall after a 63-49 loss at Portland State later Thursday night. Eastern has won six straight against the Bengals, including three in a row last season to reach the conference tournament semifinals.
“What I do know is we need a win,” Hayford said. “What I tell my guys is keep your eyes on the prize. … Idaho State is someone we need to get.”