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Jacob Wiley powers Eastern Washington past Sacramento State in Big Sky men’s basketball

In this Jan. 7, 2017 file photo, Eastern Washington forward Jacob Wiley (24) battles Montana forward Jack Lopez for possession of the ball during a game in Cheney, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
In this Jan. 7, 2017 file photo, Eastern Washington forward Jacob Wiley (24) battles Montana forward Jack Lopez for possession of the ball during a game in Cheney, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

You had to feel sorry for the Sacramento State big men.

The bigger they were, the harder they fell for the athletic inside moves of Jacob Wiley, who scored 38 points Thursday night to lead Eastern Washington to a 77-72 win at Reese Court.

Already a contender for Big Sky Conference player of the year, Wiley moved to the head of the class after one of the most dominant performances in recent Eastern history.

He also brought the passion, exciting the crowd of 1,502 with his fist-pumps as well as his play.

“When you do something you love, it’s my belief that you should do it with passion,” said Wiley, who also had a game-high 12 assists, four blocks and went 10 for 13 from the foul line.

Wiley’s 38 points rank eighth in EWU history.

The Hornets simply had no answer for the 6-foot-7 Wiley, who gave up 4 inches and 30 pounds to Hornets post Eric Stuteville but outplayed him in every way to help Eastern improve to 15-8 overall and 7-3 in the conference.

Quicker bodies didn’t help the Hornets, who succumbed to Wiley’s athleticism not only in the paint but also on the open floor.

With Eastern clinging to a 68-61 lead with barely 3 minutes to play, Wiley had just broken the press when he faced two defenders at the top of the key. But he froze one with a behind-the-back dribble, then blazed past the other for an easy layup.

Two minutes later, EWU was up by six as Wiley faced three defenders in the paint. No problem: He used a nifty spin move and slammed the ball home to all but put the game away.

Eastern’s game plan was obvious from the start.

“We are going to get Jake the ball, and we (ask other teams), ‘What are you going to do about it?’ If that doesn’t get solved, we are going to keep going to him,” EWU coach Jim Hayford said.

“We take a page out of the Eastern football playbook – if you can’t stop Cooper Kupp, we are going to keep throwing him the ball. … He just keeps putting unbelievable games up that I’m sure everybody in Eagle nation loves.”

Both teams struggled on offense in the first half, which ended with the Hornets up 26-23.

The first field goal didn’t come until 4 minutes into the game, when Wiley went over the top on Stuteville.

The Hornets didn’t get a bucket until Marcus Graves’ clock-beating 3-pointer with 13:28 left. Eastern responded with a deft pass from Sir Washington that Wiley turned into a two-handed slam.

Seconds later, Felix Von Hofe hit a 3-pointer in transition to make it 11-5 and Sacramento State coach Brian Katz called timeout. It paid off, as the Hornets chipped away at the lead until Justin Strings’ steal and layin tied the game at 17 with 6:09 left.

“But we were playing some really good defense and kind of fought our way through that first half,” Hayford said. “It was like we were moving in mud. We had a real logical timeout and said, ‘Hey, can we get some more passion into this game?’ ”

Four minutes into the second half, Sacramento State was up by five, but Eastern responded with a 14-2 run that was its best of the game.

None of the points came from Wiley. Bogdan Bliznyuk, who finished with 11 points, opened the rally with a short jumper, and Cody Benzel added a pair of 3-pointers to give the Eagles some breathing room at 47-40.

The lead hit 10 on Wiley’s free throw with 5:51 to play.

The Hornets got 21 points from Graves and 20 from Strings, but fell to 7-13 overall and 4-5 in the conference.

The Eagles are home on Saturday against Portland State, which lost at Idaho 89-72.

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