By any measure, Eastern Washington earned a benchmark win Saturday afternoon at Reese Court.
The Eagles’ 86-72 Big Sky Conference men’s basketball victory over third-place Southern Utah was fashioned by superb shooting, toughness and, above all, by a bench that’s looking deeper by the game.
Nine different Eagles played at least 10 minutes and each grabbed at least two rebounds against one of the top rebounding teams in the conference. Even better, they did it with leading scorer and rebounder Venky Jois, still slowed by an ankle injury.
The only thing deeper may be the Big Sky itself; only two games separate the third- through ninth-place teams, with Eastern (6-9 in the Big Sky and 8-17 overall) hoping to move deep into the pack with a win Monday night at Portland State.
“This team has great depth, we knew that,” said guard Parker Kelly, one of four Eagles scoring in double figures. “A lot of guys who didn’t get chances early in the year, they’re getting chances now and they’re stepping up.”
On Saturday, they stepped up at both ends of the court, hitting season highs for points and shooting percentage (53.7 percent) while blocking 10 more shots to set the single-season team record of 138 with at least six games to play.
Jois got five of those blocks to break the individual single-season record with 55.
“One of the things I appreciate is that we keep improving,” said EWU head coach Jim Hayford, whose club has won four of its last six games while holding its own on the boards even without Jois at 100 percent.
Against Southern Utah (8-8, 10-15) center Martin Seiferth had 10 boards along with 11 points, his second double-double of the year. EWU outrebounded the Thunderbirds 41-40 and outscored them 38-12 in the paint.
“We knew that was going to be a big deal,” Hayford said. “We can hold them to a low field-goal percentage, but we just couldn’t let them get points off of rebound putbacks. We did a good job cleaning up the boards.”
The Eagles also made something of those rebounds, scoring 16 fastbreak points against a team that had to play two days earlier in Portland.
“That was part of our game plan,” Hayford said. “We’re the team that’s rested and they’re the team that played two days ago.
“Let’s keep pushing it.”
The Eagles even pushed back when they had to. The teams combined for 41 fouls, four technicals and plenty of physical play. Four Eagles and five T-Birds had at least four fouls.
“They play with an edge, and you just have to keep your head,” Hayford said.
The Eagles, who hadn’t played since their comeback win at Northern Arizona on Feb. 9, led wire-to-wire against the poor-shooting (32.8 percent) T-Birds.
Still, Eastern led only 18-16 late in the first half despite hitting half its field-goal attempts. But Collin Chiverton got two of his game-high 18 points on a jumper that gave Eastern its first double-digit lead of the day, 28-18 with 5 minutes left in the half.
The lead shrunk to eight early in the second half, before Chiverton capped a 9-2 run with a 3-pointer – one of a season-low 15 attempted by the Eagles.
Led by a game-high 26 points from Jackson Stevenett, the T-Birds cut the lead to 58-49 with 10:36 left, but Kelly responded by feeding Seiferth for a dunk. He then took a fast-break pass from Tyler Harvey for a layup that restored a 13-point lead.
Kelly hit 6 of 10 field-goal attempts, including a trio of 3-pointers, to finish with 15 points. Harvey finished with 11 points, all in the last 6 minutes.
“Early this season we were up, and we didn’t know how to handle it,” Kelly said. “It was encouraging that we could keep a lead and even build on it.”