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Venky Jois highlights up-and-down season for Eagles

Guard Cody Benzel, right, will be among the returning players next season for Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Guard Cody Benzel, right, will be among the returning players next season for Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The win total was down, but the entertainment value was as high as ever this season at Eastern Washington.

The ferocious slam-dunks of Venky Jois and the 924 three-pointers launched by the Eagles partly offset the injuries and a late-season slide that left them 18-16 overall.

The Eagles did that with only one returning starter: Jois, who ended his career as both the Eagles’ leading career scorer and the player most closely identified with Eastern’s recent success – 44 wins in the past two years is the most in EWU’s 33 seasons as a Division I school.

“He’s a great player – one of the best in school history – and we’re going to miss him,” coach Jim Hayford said.

After the season ended in a second-round loss at Nevada in the second round of the College Basketball Invitational, Hayford talked about one of his favorite subjects – program building – and the work accomplished during his fifth year in Cheney.

“One of the goals I wanted was to get the program to the place where you don’t have down years – you have to be consistent,” said Hayford, reflecting on a season that landed short of expectations mostly because of injuries and spotty defense.

Those expectations were sky-high following the Eagles’ NCAA run a year ago. The loss of four starters – including national scoring leader Tyler Harvey – was mitigated by strong performances from transfers Austin McBroom and Julian Harrell, though the latter missed the first 14 games with a wrist injury.

“I think that it was just hard, not being able to mold the team together until January because of injury,” Hayford said.

Once the Eagles clicked, they reeled off seven straight wins and challenged for the Big Sky Conference regular-season title they shared a year ago. Along the way they shot 3-pointers with abandon, ranking fifth nationally in attempts; and averaged 1,747 fans at Reese Court despite not hosting a Division I opponent for seven weeks.

The high-water mark came on Feb. 18 after a 93-88 win at Sacramento State that left EWU 16-10 overall and 10-4 in the conference. After that, the Eagles lost six of their last eight, thanks to inconistent shooting and defense, nagging injuries thoughout the lineup and finally a sore knee that left Jois on the bench for the last game of his career.

His cup always half-full, Hayford noted that Eastern managed a first-round CBI win over Pepperdine even as Jois missed two-thirds of the game.

Looking ahead to a future without Jois, Hayford said he’s confident that junior-to-be Bogdan Bliznyuk (12.4 points, 6.8 rebounds this year) “is going to be the next star.” Another key returnee is Harrell, a versatile wing who averaged 8.3 points and shot 50 percent from beyond the arc.

Hayford also expects big contributions next year from 6-foot-8 Rico Nuño, who was injured at mid-season; sophomores Jesse Hunt and Bear Henderson; redshirt freshman-to-be Geremy McKay and incoming recruit Mason Peatling.

Sharpshooting forward Felix Von Hofe (13.0 ppg, 42.3 percent from three) figures to be the go-to shooter from long range, while guard Cody Benzel (38.8 percent from three) should see more playing time.

Hayford’s top offseason chore is to replace McBroom, who averaged a team-leading 21 points and 3.7 assists while also hitting 115 three-pointers, the third-best single-season mark in school history.

Except for junior Sir Washington, the rest of the EWU backcourt is a “cast of unknowns,” said Hayford, who has Ty Gibson, Michael Wearne and Will Ferris returning. He’s also high on high school recruit Jacob Davison.

No matter who’s in the lineup, Hayford said “We still need to improve defensively.” Last year, EWU ranked 340th out of 351 schools in field-goal defense, at 48.8 percent.

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