Fittingly, New Year’s Day offered the perfect opportunity for the Eastern basketball players to show their resolve.
Trailing Weber State by eight points with less than six minutes to play, the Eagles made all the big plays down the stretch to win their Big Sky Conference opener, 84-78, on Thursday afternoon at Reese Court.
“What I was most pleased with tonight was that our team just fought and showed grit – whatever that word is that describes refusing to lose,” Eastern coach Jim Hayford said after a game that threatened to play out much like the Eagles’ last meeting with the Wildcats.
In that game – Eastern’s last of the 2013-14 season – the Eagles struggled early in the second half, then staged a furious rally that fell just short – and also left them just short of the postseason.
Not so on Thursday, when Eastern twice overcame eight-point deficits and outscored the Big Sky preseason favorites 21-7 in the last six minutes.
The Eagles also provided a little validation in the eyes of 1,832 fans, many of whom came to see firsthand the team that went 9-4 in the nonconference season and knocked off the likes of Indiana and San Francisco.
“This was a win I’m not sure we would have had last year, and certainly not two years ago. But we found that extra measure in us, and it showed,” Hayford said after enduring the stress of 12 lead changes and 10 ties.
They certainly found an extra measure in guard Tyler Harvey, who played all 40 minutes and scored a career-high 39 points while hitting 12 of 19 shots and 7 of 10 from beyond the three-point arc. That effort also makes Harvey the national scoring leader with a 23.9 average.
“We knew coming in that this game wouldn’t be easy,” said Harvey, who was called on more than ever after point guard Drew Brandon and forward Venky Jois were each sidelined with minor injuries.
“Weber beat us last year at the end of the season, and we didn’t forget about that. When it got tough, we just kept grinding,” Harvey said.
The defending Big Sky champion Wildcats used the 3-point shooting of Ryan Richardson and the defensive presence of forward Joel Bolomboy to erase a 38-36 EWU halftime lead and slowly pull away in the second half.
Richardson, who finished with 22 points on 6-of-8 shooting from long range, gave Weber a 67-59 lead with 8:05 to play. After a brief Eastern rally, Chris Golden hit a trey that made it 71-63 with 5:57 left.
The Eagles got back in it after Parker Kelly hit a trio of free throws after being fouled, and Harvey drilled a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 71-69.
Weber still led 75-71 with 2:16 left, when momentum shifted for good. Harvey hit his final trey after a nice pass from Brandon, and Jois got his fifth block of the night against Jeremy Senglin. The ball fell into the hands of backup Bogdan Bliznyuk, who came off the bench for foul-plagued Ognjen Miljkovic and pulled down eight rebounds.
Brandon’s next pass found Kelly for a 3-pointer that made it 77-75, and 40 seconds later he stole the ball from Senglin and slammed it home with 1:04 left.
The Eagles clinched the game at the foul line, hitting their last five to finish 16 for 17.
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