The toughness that was so glaringly absent in Eastern Washington University’s lopsided road loss to Northern Arizona just a little more than a month ago resurfaced Saturday night as the Eagles dug out an important 54-50 Big Sky men’s basketball win over the Lumberjacks.
Fueled by a season-high Reese Court crowd of 3,097, Eastern (11-13, 5-7 Big Sky) avenged its earlier 72-49 setback to NAU (6-16, 3-8) and moved into sixth in the conference standings, just percentage points ahead of Idaho State, which lost at Northern Colorado on Saturday.
Senior guard Benny Valentine finished with 13 points and a season-high seven assists to lead Eastern, and the Eagles’ defense held NAU to 44.7 percent shooting (21 for 47) from the field, which was almost 7 percentage points less than the 51.8 they had shot against Big Sky opponents coming into the game.
“Northern Arizona whipped our butts physically in Flagstaff,” Eagles coach Kirk Earlywine said. “It was like taking your little brother out in the backyard. But tonight, I thought we were at least as physical as them.”
Earlywine also praised the all-around play of Valentine, who made 6 of 10 shots from field, while also chasing down three rebounds and coming up with a pair of big steals.
“I thought Benny played his best game of the year by a wide margin,” he said of his 5-foot-6 point guard, who came in as the Big Sky’s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.2 points. “He ran the team and got shots for his teammates. He wasn’t out there just chuckin’ up shots.
“I thought, without question, he was the key to the win – and he didn’t have to score 25 or 30 points.”
Valentine called the victory “huge,” and said it is crucial for the Eagles to hold their spot among the leagues’ top six team to qualify for the Big Sky tournament.
“Every game from now on, our season’s on the line, and that’s the way we have to come out and play,” he said. “We’ve got to come out and play 40 minutes and do whatever it takes to win.
“We didn’t have a large margin for error to start (the second half of conference play) with, and now it’s even smaller.”
Neither team led by more than four points in the game, and the Eagles got a pair of free throws from Milan Stanojevic – who finished with 11 points – with just 3 seconds left to cement the victory.
NAU, playing without key reserves Matt Johnson and Jermaine Calvin, who were suspended for undisclosed disciplinary reasons, got a team-high 11 points from Cameron Jones. It didn’t help that the Lumberjacks’ all-conference point guard and career assists leader, Josh Wilson, turned an ankle early in the game and played 26 minutes in obvious pain.
Still, this was a win the Eagles earned – with some blue-collar toughness and a boost from the crowd, which really got into it in the final minutes.
“It was not a pretty game, by any means,” Earlywine said. “In these types of games, one loose ball, one deflection or one rebound can be the difference. That little bit of extra energy you maybe get from the crowd can sometimes lead to that deflection, or lead to getting that loose ball, or lead to getting that rebound. … So we were very fortunate to be at home tonight.”
Eastern heads back out on the road for Big Sky games against Weber State on Thursday and against Idaho State on Saturday.
EWU 54, N. Arizona 50
N. Arizona (6-16, 3-8)—Jones 5-11 0-0 11, Larson 1-4 0-0 2, Johannsen 3-4 1-2 7, Bishop 2-4 4-4 8, Wilson 3-7 0-0 7, Lee 3-8 0-0 7, Comagic 3-7 0-0 6, Lepley 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 21-47 5-6 50.
E. Washington (11-13, 5-7)—Genao 3-5 0-0 7, Dunn 1-3 0-0 2, Moore 2-8 0-2 4, Gibson 2-2 0-0 5, Stanojevic 2-7 6-6 11, Busch 2-3 2-2 7, Valentine 6-10 0-0 13, DeLeon 1-6 0-0 2, Christensen 1-2 0-0 3, Brunell 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-47 8-10 54.
Halftime—E. Washington 31-27. 3-Point Goals—N. Arizona 3-17 (Wilson 1-4, Lee 1-4, Jones 1-5, Bishop 0-1, Comagic 0-1, Larson 0-2), E. Washington 6-17 (Christensen 1-1, Valentine 1-1, Busch 1-1, Gibson 1-1, Genao 1-2, Stanojevic 1-6, DeLeon 0-5). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—N. Arizona 22 (Johannsen, Jones 5), E. Washington 29 (Moore 9). Assists—N. Arizona 11 (Jones 5), E. Washington 12 (Valentine 7). Total Fouls—N. Arizona 12, E. Washington 11. A—3,097.
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