Eastern Washington faced a tall order Sunday afternoon against UC Irvine, and the Eagles made it halfway up the mountain.
However, second-half slumps from the field and at the free-throw line cost the Eagles dearly in a 70-61 nonconference home basketball loss against UC Irvine at Reese Court.
“This game will make us better,” Eastern coach Jim Hayford said after the Eagles fell to 5-4, endangering Hayford’s preseason goal of a winning record in nonconference play.
Next up is a two-game road trip back East, at Seton Hall on Dec. 22 and at Connecticut six days later. The Eagles’ next home game is Jan. 9 against Montana.
On Sunday, in front of 911 fans, the Eagles faced a team that beat them 81-58 three weeks ago, thanks partly to 10 blocked shots by Irvine center Mamadou Ndiaye, who at 7-foot-6 is the tallest player in college basketball.
“All through the week, we were saying, ‘We’re going to drive it at him’,” Eastern guard Parker Kelly said. “But floaters, pull-ups, he’s going to block it or get a hand in there.
“I think it does play a factor” in shot selection, said Kelly, who played 39 minutes and finished with 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting.
Ndiaye had four blocks on Sunday, but a bigger factor was Eastern’s 1-for-18 shooting slump from the field to start the second half; within 8 minutes, a 31-29 halftime lead became a 45-36 deficit.
“They play good team defense,” said Hayford of a team that’s picked to win the Big West Conference.
That defense started in the middle with Ndiaye, who was a factor in a combined 3-for-15 effort from the field by Eastern big men Martin Seiferth and Venky Jois.
“If we didn’t play good defense, we’d be down 20 or 25,” Kelly said.
EWU guard Tyler Harvey scored a game-high 15 points and hit a 3 that made it 53-51 with 7:50 left.
The Eagles closed to 58-56 on a layup by Jois with 5:26 to play, but the game quickly got away after that. Eastern forward Ognen Miljkovic was whistled for an intentional foul, then Jois missed the front end of a one-and-one at the other end.
Ndiaye answered with a slam, Jois blanked on another one-and-one and Irvine’s Luke Nelson hit the last of his team-high 13 points with a 3 that made it 65-56 with 2:14 to play.
Jois, a 71 percent free-throw shooter last season, is 28 for 53, or 52.9 percent, this season.
“I’m not sure why that’s dropped off,” Hayford said. “He has great personal character, and that’ll get fixed.”
Jois had a game-high nine rebounds. Point guard Drew Brandon had 12 points and six assists.