This is what Eastern Washington basketball coach Jim Hayford means by program-building.
With star forward Venky Jois out with an ankle injury and his Eagles warming up Thursday night to the strains of “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” Hayford didn’t flinch.
Instead, Hayford looked to his bench players, whose tough defense and rebounding backed another virtuoso performance by Tyler Harvey in a 95-85 Big Sky Conference win over Northern Colorado at Reese Court.
“I am really pleased with our intensity, especially in the first half and into the first 5 minutes of the second half. It was some of the best defense we’ve played all season,” Hayford said after the Eagles improved to 14-5 overall and 5-1 in conference play.
Thanks partly to a bench that’s as strong as it’s been in years, the Eagles outrebounded UNC 39-27. Backup forward Bogdan Bliznyuk had nine boards, and Kyle Reid – starting in place of Jois – had four.
“We knew we would have to really rebound without Venky. We knew that it wasn’t going to be one guy, but it was going to be everybody and we outrebounded them by 12,” said Hayford, who also lost backup forward Felix Von Hofe to illness.
Along with some strong first-half shooting, that rebounding edge helped the Eagles lead by 23 points at halftime and by 30 only 4 minutes later. Eastern struggled late against the Bears’ press, and the lead briefly dipped into single digits before the Eagles put the game away at the free-throw line.
Along the way, they may have set an unofficial Big Sky record by holding the UNC starters to just 22 points, including a 0-for-10 goose egg laid by star guard Tevin Svihovec.
“That was all Drew,” said Hayford, referring to point guard Drew Brandon, whose stubborn defense was supplemented with 14 points and a game-high 11 boards. “Drew has been playing really well and we did a lot of studying on them.”
The offensive star – again – was Harvey, who finished with 35 points while getting off some 3-point shots that seemed to get longer with every attempt.
“I always go in confident,” said Harvey, who hit a 26-footer late in the first half to put Eastern ahead 31-14. By game’s end, the junior guard was 9 for 15 from the field and 5 for 9 from long range.
Harvey leads Division I with a 23.8 scoring average.
Most of the Eagles had a hot hand in the first half. At intermission, the Eagles led 50-27 while shooting 15 for 26 from the field, including 8 for 12 from beyond the arc. UNC was 11 for 33 and 3 for 10, respectively.
As the lead stretched to 59-29 early in the second half, students were pleading for an appearance by 7-foot-1 backup center Frederik Jörg. Instead, the Bears (9-8, 4-2) steadily chipped away at the lead.
Cameron Michael’s 3-pointer cut the lead to 85-77 with 2:02 left, but Eastern hit eight straight free throws to clinch the game.
Eastern finished 26 for 29 at the foul line, improving to 102 for 117 (87.2 percent) in six conference games.
Jois, sidelined with an ankle injury since early in the Portland State game on Jan. 15, could return Saturday against North Dakota, Hayford said after the game.
Sacramento State 62, Idaho State 59: Mikh McKinney scored 24 points and added five assists to lead the Hornets to a victory over the Bengals in Pocatello.
Sacramento State led by as many as 12 in the second half, but a Chris Hansen 3-pointer put Idaho State up 59-58 with 33 seconds left in the game. The Hornets’ Zach Mills and Trevis Jackson both hit 2 of 2 from the line in the final 20 seconds.
Montana 64, Northern Arizona 57: Jordan Gregory knocked down seven 3-pointers and sparked a comeback at the start of the second half to lead the Grizzlies over the Lumberjacks in Missoula.
Montana State 79, Southern Utah 65: Stephan Holm scored 19 points, Michael Dison scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half, and the Bobcats rallied to beat the Thunderbirds in Bozeman.
Portland State 69, Weber State 63: Braxton Tucker scored 21 points, DaShaun Wiggins chipped in 17 and the Vikings beat the host Wildcats in Ogden, Utah.
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