RENO, Nevada – With the four-game losing streak in his rear-view mirror, Eastern Washington basketball coach Jim Hayford finally could make light of it.
And offer a warning to Idaho and the rest of the Big Sky Conference.
After a 74-52 win over Northern Arizona in the first round of the conference tournament on Tuesday night, Hayford joked that “We were kind of like a snake coiling into perfect form ready to strike this week.”
The Eagles (17-14) did just that against the lowly Lumberjacks. They struggled with their shots early, but struck – cobra-like – on defense by forcing 17 turnovers to fuel a second-half runaway.
Now it’s Idaho – with one of the best defenses in the conference – that’s lying in wait for Thursday night’s quarterfinal game at the Reno Events Center.
“There’s no secrets,” Hayford said of the rivalry and the upcoming game against the Vandals.
The only mystery going into the NAU game was how Eastern would respond to the losing streak and an opponent that was playing with nothing to lose after dropping 13 of its previous 15 games.
At first, Eastern answered that question tentatively, missing its first four shots and falling behind 6-0. The Eagles still trailed 26-20 after missing 12 of their first 14 shots from long range, while the Lumberjacks were 3 for 6.
“We’ve been in this position before,” said point guard Austin McBroom, who missed three of his first four long-range shots but finished with a team-high 16 points and a career-high five steals.
“We came out kind of cold, but coach tells us to never stop shooting,” McBroom said.
More important, the Eagles never stopped playing defense. Eastern led 36-29 at halftime thanks largely to eight NAU turnovers that were transformed into 12 points. Those numbers doubled by game’s end.
“In some ways our team can be a fragile team and we get things mixed up,” Hayford said. “We can get our energy when we’re scoring.
“We got a little re-adjusted tonight – we didn’t make shots like we can, but we fed off our defense,” Hayford said.
EWU led only 43-35 four minutes into the second half, but doubled that advantage over the next four minutes as NAU shot just 40 percent from the field and 23 percent from long range in the second half.
It was Eastern’s best defensive performance since Idaho made only 31.3 percent on Jan. 9 in a 74-60 Eagle win.
The Eagles’ shooting touch returned in the second half, as Sir Washington drained a 3 and Cody Benzel added two more to push the lead to an insurmountable 67-41 with 6:52 to play.
Along the way, Eastern got balanced scoring, as Bogdan Bliznyuk (15 points) and Venky Jois (14 points) were in double figures.
Jois also had a game-high 11 rebounds and six assists, including a pair of no-look passes that Julian Harrell and Bliznyuk turned into easy layups.
The only setback for EWU was an ankle injury suffered by Julian Harrell, who left the game late in the first half and didn’t return. His status is uncertain against Idaho.
NAU finished 5-25 overall after losing 14 of its last 16 games, but Hayford said, “Anytime you win a postseason game it’s a great win.”
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