OGDEN, Utah – With the team in the locker room, Eastern Washington coaches sat on their team’s bench in the Dee Events Center, in awe of the moment. The Eagles were Big Sky Champions for the first time since 2004 and only the third time in school history.
After falling behind by as many as 19 points, the Eagles mounted a comeback and stole a victory, defeating the Weber State Wildcats 79-71 in overtime Saturday night. Eastern Washington trailed or was tied from the opening tip until 1:40 remained in overtime.
“Competing for the Big Sky championship and be able to come this weekend and win two road games, it’s a display of all the hard work we’ve put in,” Eastern big man Venky Jois said. “Finally, we’ve achieved our goal to win a Big Sky championship.”
After Chris Golden hit a 3-pointer to give Weber a 69-66 lead with 1:27 remaining in regulation, Tyler Harvey nailed a 3 to answer, sending the game to overtime and setting up heroics from Bogdan Bliznyuk. The freshman finished with 14 points, his final bucket a 3-pointer at that 1:40 mark in overtime to put Eastern up 74-71.
But the story of the game was the comeback. Even with 13 minutes remaining, Weber held a 52-37 advantage and all the momentum after Joel Bolomboy grabbed an offensive rebound, sending the arena into a frenzy with a nasty two-handed dunk.
That’s when Harvey went to work. The nation’s leading scorer had two points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first half, but shot the Eagles back into the game late. In less than two minutes of game time, Harvey – who finished with 24 points – drained three contested 3-pointers to pull Eastern within eight points.
“Coach (Jim Hayford) just told me to stay aggressive and play my game and the shots would fall,” Harvey said. “We’re a great team on offense so we knew we could make a comeback.”
“He’s got to be one of the better players I’ve seen in the league. He’s got to be in the top five, for sure,” Weber head coach Randy Rahe said about Harvey. “All I can say is he’s a terrific player, and he’s the best tough-shot maker I’ve seen for a while.”
The Eagles completed the comeback with 3:25 left in regulation when Jois converted a post-up for two points, tying the game at 64.
Hayford was pleased his team stuck to his pregame message that hard work pays off.
“The guys pushed away frustration, they pushed away discouragement, and we just kept working hard,” Hayford said. “We gutted out a win with hard work.”
The large deficit came after a massive 18-0 Weber State run, sparked by a 3-pointer and a floater from Richaud Gittens. As the Eagles shot 0 of 8 over a 6-minute stretch, the Wildcats raced to a 37-18 lead with under four minutes left in the first quarter.
Eastern Washington will share the conference championship with the Montana Grizzlies, and due to tiebreaker rules the Big Sky Conference Tournament will be held in Missoula, beginning Thursday.
Hayford’s message to his team for the tournament will be simple: “Don’t stop believing.”
Eastern draws a first-round rematch with Idaho at 10 a.m.
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