After talking all week about defending the home court, Eastern Washington did just that Friday night.
The Eagles held Idaho to 40-percent shooting and just 29 percent from long range, and made Vandals star Victor Sanders earn every one of his game-high 18 points.
That should have been enough, but Eastern faltered badly at the other end during a 58-51 Big Sky Conference loss in front of 2,334 fans at Reese Court.
At times that breakdown was total. Eastern made just eight field goals during a 21-minute span, turning a 14-point lead into a nearly hopeless 11-point deficit with just more than 2 minutes left.
The result left both teams at 3-2 in the conference, but the Eastern players and coaches felt they left something on the court: their offensive identity.
“We didn’t execute the way we’re supposed to,” Eastern forward Bogdan Bliznyuk said after the Eagles lost at home for the first time this year and also for the first time in 12 games.
The culprits were many. Most were fostered by Idaho’s midgame switch from man defense to a 1-2-2 zone. Eastern shot just 32 percent in the second half, lost the rebounding battle by 10 and didn’t get to the free-throw line until the last 3 minutes.
“We knew it was coming, but I didn’t have our guys prepared,” EWU coach Shantay Legans said.
Eastern got off to a great start, hitting eight of its first 13 shots while taking leads of 10-1 and 20-6.
Did the Eagles come out too fast? There’s no such thing, Legans said.
“You can never be too amped going into a game.” he said. “We have to do a better job of sustaining that. … We didn’t play with the same swagger – it came down to our offense slowing down and not playing with the same efficiency.”
Meanwhile, the Vandals found their shooting touch after missing five of their first seven shots, outscoring Eastern 14-3 in a 4 1/2-minute run late in the half.
Down just 27-25 at halftime, Idaho held the momentum the rest of the way. The Vandals took the lead for good with 13:06 left on a layup by Trevon Allen, who came off the bench to score 12 points.
The margin remained in single digits until Sanders hit a layup with 5:19 left to make it 51-41. Idaho’s next points came more than 3 minutes later on a Sanders field goal, but that was fine as Eastern didn’t score a point in the interim.
“We tried to break their rhythm a little bit, and the zone was working pretty good tonight so we played it a little more than we normally do,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said.
Noting that the Eagles were shooting 50 percent from the field in conference play, Verlin said, “Shantay’s done a really good job of putting his personnel in the right places to score. We felt we had to lock them down.”
Bliznyuk felt shackled more than anyone. After scoring a game-high nine points in the first half, he was suffocated by the Vandals zone and didn’t score in the second half until the game was out of reach.
“We just have to bounce back and get ready,” said Bliznyuk, who finished with a team-high 14 points and six boards.
“These kinds of games hurt, but you can’t let it hold you back,” Bliznyuk said.