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Eagles waste hot start, lose to Bears in Big Sky opener

For the first 13 minutes, things went according to plan in the Big Sky Conference opener for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team.

But the defending champions couldn’t keep the Bears caged, and Northern Colorado exploded for 78 points in the final 27 minutes to beat the Eagles 96-90 Thursday (Dec. 31) at the Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion in Greeley, Colorado.

Felix Von Hofe scored 27 points for the Eagles, marking his third straight game of at least 27. Venky Jois had his second straight double-double with 25 points and 10 rebounds, but EWU never led in the second half after taking a 24-18 lead in the opening 12:47.

“We came in here and played our game plan in the first half,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford, whose team plays its 11th road game in 14 games this season on Saturday at North Dakota. “We did a great job rebounding in the first half, and in the second half we would get a stop but we wouldn’t get the rebound. It’s not realistic to win if you don’t put up more resistance defensively.”

The Bears made 40 of 65 shots from the field for 62 percent, including 9 of 13 3-pointers (69 percent). In the second half alone, Northern Colorado made 66 percent from the field and outrebounded the Eagles 22-10. The Bears had 16 of their 20 second-chance points after intermission.

“We are going to shake it off and see if we can go guard better on Saturday,” added Hayford.

Eastern is now 6-7 overall with 10 of its 13 games thus far on the road. Northern Colorado improved to 4-9 and snapped a three-game losing streak.

The Eagles knew defending their Big Sky Conference regular season and conference titles wasn’t going to be easy, but it’s now going to be downright tough after losing a winnable game on the road. Eastern had ended nonconference play with a convincing 74-58 road victory at Denver, which had previously defeated Northern Colorado, Idaho State and Weber State from the Big Sky.

Eastern now travels to Grand Forks to face North Dakota on Saturday in a game that begins at noon. Eastern will have played 11 of its 14 games on the road by the time they play their conference home opener on Jan. 9 versus Idaho.

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