RENO, Nev. – How strange was this scene – and how reassuring for Eastern Washington basketball fans.
There was Eagles forward Jacob Wiley – the dominator, the Big Sky Conference MVP – glued to the bench for most of the second half with foul trouble.
But the Eagles didn’t miss a beat on Thursday night, cruising to an 89-70 win over Sacramento State and a spot in the tournament semifinals against Weber State.
This wasn’t your usual Eastern game – at times the Eagles seemingly couldn’t draw a breath without drawing a foul.
“We were trying to keep them off the offensive glass, and we struggled to do that sometimes,” Wiley said.
Eight minutes into the second half, Eastern had racked up 22 personal fouls and a 13-point halftime lead was sliced in half.
Seemingly, the Eagles were in trouble.
“Those runs, you know they’re going to happen, but we’re mentally a pretty tough team,” said coach Jim Hayford, who has the Eagles (22-10) two wins from a second NCAA Tournament berth in three years.
As Wiley went to the bench with four fouls with 13 minutes left in the game, point-forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, who had three himself, didn’t flinch.
“When you get into foul trouble, you never want to lose your aggressiveness,” said Bliznyuk, who filled the lane and the stat sheet to the tune of 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Other Eagles stepped up: Mason Peatling getting eight points, six boards and challenging the physical Hornets on the glass; Cody Benzel with nine points; and above all Sir Washington, who scored nine of his 11 points in the second half.
Five of those came in crunch time, immediately after Eastern’s lead was down to 46-40. Washington followed a layup with a 3-pointer, restoring a double-digit lead the Eagles would never lose.
“Sac State played really hard for 40 minutes,” Hayford said. “We made enough from outside to keep them honest.”
Sac State was 23 of 55 overall and just 3 of 13 from beyond the arc.
Worse for the Hornets (13-18), they didn’t capitalize at foul line, making just 21 of 36 attempts. That negated any chance for a run despite 29 points from senior guard Marcus Graves.
With 8:02 left and the Eagles up 64-46, Wiley returned to make up for lost time.
Did he ever.
In eight minutes, Wiley accounted for 12 points and four boards, helping Eastern pull away.
“Coming back in, I’m fresh since I’d been sitting down,” said Wiley, who finished with 24 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
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