This was a win worth savoring, and Jim Hayford didn’t hold back.
But Eastern Washington’s coach didn’t talk about the chase for a 20th win or even the Eagles’ chances for a Big Sky Conference title.
Moments after the Eagles’ 82-72 win over Weber State – arguably one of his biggest – Hayford chose to dish out praise to every coach and player who’s been a part of the program during his six years in Cheney.
“It’s a great team win and a great victory for our program,” Hayford said Thursday night after a high-stakes game in front of 2,223 fans at Reese Court.
For Hayford, program-building began in 2011 with the realization that Eastern’s program couldn’t compare with Weber, which has won 22 conference titles.
“The measuring stick as we were building our program was Weber State,” Hayford said. “Randy Rahe is a great coach and has a great program there.”
Rahe still does. However, Eastern has won three of the last five meetings against the Wildcats.
“I’m just really happy for a lot of people who are a part of the program and are very happy right now,” Hayford said.
A glance at the Big Sky standings is sure to bring a smile to Eastern fans. The Eagles (19-9 overall, 11-4 Big Sky) are tied for second place with Weber and just a game behind North Dakota.
Better yet, with three games left in the regular season – against teams with a combined conference record of 10-32 – the Eagles are a lock to earn only the second 20-win season in the school’s Division I history.
If they can take care of business against Idaho State, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, they will match the 14-4 conference record of Hayford’s NCAA tournament team of two years ago.
“Our focus is the same – we have to keep getting better,” Hayford said. “It’s not a cliché and our players truly believe in that. We keep playing better basketball.”
It didn’t get any better than a 3 1/2-minute stretch that began midway through the second half. Until then, the Eagles had led almost the entire game but never by more than six points.
Leading 54-51 with 9 minutes, 50 seconds left, Eastern embarked on a 15-4 run that brought out the best in this team.
Forward Bogdan Bliznyuk – who led the Eagles with 25 points – also led the rally with two layups in heavy traffic, plus a 3-pointer delivered in characteristic fashion.
Bliznyuk lobbed the ball to Jacob Wiley. Seconds later, it went to guard Sir Washington, who found Bliznyuk on the perimeter for a wide-open 3-pointer.
Washington, in his sixth start of the season, had 16 points and five assists. Twice he was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer, and he drilled all six foul shots.
So did the rest of the Eagles, who were 17 for 18 from the foul line in the second half.
“Just staying in the gym, shooting a lot and coming to practice focused,” Washington said.
Wiley had another double-double, with 20 points and 13 rebounds, while working against 6-foot-9 Zach Braxton.
Felix Von Hofe capped the rally with his first 3-pointer of the night. That gave Eastern a comfortable 69-55 lead with 6:22 left.
Weber, which got 19 points from Braxton and 14 from Jeremy Senglin, closed to within five, but Wiley hit a jumper and Ty Gibson hit four free throws to boost the lead to 11 with 1:09 to play.
Both teams were slow out of the gate. The game was tied at 6 after more than 8 minutes. To that point, the teams were a combined 5 for 25 from the field.
Eastern led 32-30 at halftime. It could have been more, but Weber made 8 of 10 foul shots while the Eagles were 1 for 4.
The Eagles finish their home season with Saturday’s Senior Day game against Idaho State. Eastern has a 14-1 home record and is just one Reese Court victory away from tying the single-season record of 15 set in 1986.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.