As coach Jim Hayford was quick to point out, this was the kind of game Eastern Washington might have lost a month ago.
Two days after setting a school record with 20 3-point shots, the Eagles did the opposite on Saturday afternoon, yet came away with a 74-67 Big Sky Conference win over Sacramento State at Reese Court.
Despite making just one of 20 long-range shots – “We couldn’t have shot it any worse,” Hayford said – the Eagles didn’t define themselves by their shooting.
Instead, they played tough defense and got some key rebounds and free throws to hold off a late Sac State rally to improve to 11-10 overall and 5-4 in the Big Sky.
That alone is a big step for a program that lives and dies by the long ball. The next step: winning on the road, beginning Thursday at Northern Arizona.
“It’s probably the worst shooting performance I’ve seen as Eastern’s head coach,” Hayford said. “Sacramento State played really hard, and deserves credit for playing us better than anybody has here at home.”
“But I know when we watch video our guys are going to say, ‘I should have made that,’” Hayford said.
The Hornets (9-10 overall, 2-6 Big Sky) made things difficult in the early going by extending their defense against the Eastern shooters, who hit 20 of 31 long-range shots in a 112-83 win over Portland State on Thursday. That freed forward Venky Jois, who scored the Eagles’ first 8 points and finished with a game-high 24, along with 12 rebounds.
“We had a senior who said he would not let the team lose,” Hayford said. “He just put his head down and said, ‘here is what winning is, follow me guys.’ That’s what you want in a leader.”
Despite the poor outside shooting – EWU was 0-for-11 in the first half – the Eagles atoned by going 13 for 21 inside the arc, turned the ball over just three times and made 7 of 8 free throws. Still, an early 12-point lead had dwindled to 3 before Austin McBroom hit a pair of late jumpers to make it 37-31 at halftime.
Two minutes into the second half, the crowd of 1,944 finally got what it was looking for: a 3-pointer from Felix Von Hofe that surely would lead to more.
Incredibly, that would be EWU’s only 3-point bucket of the afternoon, but Bogdan Bliznyuk began to assert himself as the Hornets went to a smaller lineup. Twice in the next minute, he rebounded missed shots for layups.
“The coaches saw the matchup, and I did too,” said Bliznyuk, who finished with 18 points and 11 boards.
With 15 minutes left in the game, Bliznyuk did it again, giving EWU a 53-38 lead. Eastern enjoyed a double-digit lead for most of the second half – until it nearly vanished.
That’s when Sac State – which averages just five 3-pointers a game – began to get hot. The Hornets hit eight in all, including a trey from Jeff Wu that made it 62-58 with 4:43 left.
A moment later, McBroom and Jois combined for the signature play of the game. With EWU up by six, Jois took a deft pass from McBroom, dunked the ball home and saluted the crowd.
Said Jois: “When you have to make a play that changes the mood, you’ve got to capitalize. I know it seems like showmanship, but it makes a difference.”
The dunk also gave the Eagles a 66-58 lead with 3:52 left, enough of a cushion to hold off another late rally. Bliznyuk made two key rebounds, off missed shots, milking the clock while EWU hit eight of its last 10 foul shots.
McBroom finished with 16 points, all but six of them coming at the foul line. EWU was 19-for-24 at the line.
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