Shoot, that was fun.
After watching the most entertaining game of the season Saturday afternoon, 1,440 fans came away from Reese Court with a lot more than a lousy t-shirt.
Alumni Appreciation Day brought them in, but Eastern Washington kept them in their seats throughout a roller-coaster, 94-90 overtime win over Northern Colorado.
Dying by the 3-point shot in their previous fives games, the Eagles thrived by it against the Bears, hitting 16 of 29 shots on the way to a crucial Big Sky Conference win. Sophomore guard Tyler Harvey, his confidence unshaken after a 1-for-8 night in Thursday’s loss to North Dakota, tied an Eastern single-game record with 10 3s in 15 attempts.
“My teammates told me to stay confident,” said Harvey, who will remain the Big Sky scoring leader for a least another week after finishing with a game-high 38 points, sixth most in school history.
More importantly, the Eagles (9-12 overall) are 4-6 after the first half of conference play as they try to secure one of seven berths in the Big Sky postseason tournament.
“That’s the big plus of this game,” said Hayford.
There were others in a contest filled with half a season’s worth of emotional peaks and valleys. The message on the free t-shirts - “Eagle True: Are You?” – was sorely tested as UNC took an early 20-8 lead.
But the Eagles soon found their range. Guard Parker Kelly, coming off the bench for the first time, drilled two early 3s to get Eastern back in the game, and Harvey took it from there to put his team ahead at halftime, 37-33.
“It just shows you his great character,” Hayford said. “He didn’t complain, and there wasn’t any conversation about it. He was just like, ‘if you call my number I’ll be ready.’”
The shooting exhibition continued into the second half. Harvey had just nine points at halftime, but hit four more 3s in the first 51/2 minutes of the second half.
The fourth one gave Eastern its biggest lead of the game, 53-39, with 14:25 left.
The Eagles still led 61-48 with 11:24 before they almost lost the handle on the ball – and the game. Pesky UNC guard Jordan Wilson forced several turnovers and the Bears (13-6, 7-3 Big Sky) cashed them in at the other end of the floor.
One UNC run cut the deficit to 63-58 with 9:05 left before Kelly nailed the second of two short jumpers and Drew Brandon hit two free throws for a 75-65 advantage with 5:14 left.
Then came the meltdown: Four Eastern turnovers and two missed shots in a span of 21/2 minutes that brought Northern Colorado all the way back. Tate Unruh’s rebound and layin with 2:32 left gave the Bears their first lead, 76-75, since the first half.
“We panicked a little,” Hayford said. “We made it harder on ourselves than we had to, but maybe that is going to be good for us in the long run. The other thing is that we haven’t been in the situation enough where we have been up ten.”
But the Eagles regrouped, and the game boiled down to defense and free throws – ironic since the teams combined for just one made free throw in the entire first half.
Harvey tied the game at 81 with another 3-pointer with 59 seconds left. It all came down to getting a stop at the other end. Eastern Washington forced Northern Colorado sharpshooter Tate Unruh into an offbalance shot from long range.
The Eagles never trailed in overtime. Harvey opened the period with a long 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down and Venky Jois slammed home a pass from Brandon for a 61-56 lead.
That was Brandon’s 12th assist of the night – the fourth highest total in school history.
Brandon wasn’t finished; his layin with 1:30 left pushed the lead to 88-83 with 1:07 left.
“It was just a read, but that’s a big play coach (Hayford) and I talked about,” noted Brandon.
While UNC was 12 for 21 from the line, Eastern went 16 for 21, finally putting the game away with 13 seconds remaining as Kelly hit two more free throws to make it 94-88.