With its first Big Sky Conference game looming, the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team had about the best tuneup possible last weekend.
Its 76-71 win Saturday at Washington State ended a streak of six consecutive losses to the Cougars, a team the Eagles hadn’t defeated since 1997. It also avenged a three-point loss at the start of last season, also in Pullman, for an Eagles team that went on to reach the NCAA Tournament.
As far as an early season statement , that certainly served as one for Eastern (3-3), which welcomes Southern Utah (3-3)to Reese Court on Thursday night in Cheney. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
“We’ve seen it all in practice, and it was just a matter of when and how it was going to show up in games,” Eagles coach David Riley said Tuesday. “A lot of it was just consistency, and we’re still not there yet.”
Riley was promoted to head coach during the offseason, and the roster experienced plenty of turnover in the process.
Redshirt freshman Steele Venters has been the most productive returner and leads the team in scoring average (17.2), 3-pointers made (12 of 27) and minutes (29.8 per game).
But newcomers Linton Acliese III, Ethan Price, Rylan Bergersen and others have given the Eagles a fresh look this season – and plenty of potential as they look to compete for a Big Sky title.
“I think it’s a huge piece of us just building chemistry and playing within a system,” Riley said of the recent victory. “We’re not even close to where we need to be yet, but we took a big step on Saturday.”
That trio has been key early on in a number of phases of the game. Acliese, a junior, leads the team in rebounding (7.8 per game). Price, a freshman, has a team-high seven blocks. Bergersen has almost twice as many assists as anyone else with 27.
But other players have stepped up as well, namely freshman Mason Landdeck, who scored 24 points and played 29 minutes off the bench in the victory over WSU. He sank 12 of 14 free-throw attempts in the game and made 2 of 6 3-point attempts.
“He’s been showing a lot of that in practice,” Riley said, “and there’s a reason he’s out there on the court. … I know he’s never going to back down from anything, and he’s never afraid of the moment.”
Landdeck bounced around some in high school, playing at Kittitas (where he won a State 2B title as a freshman), Cashmere and then Zillah before spending his senior year at Desert Hills High in St. George, Utah .
The Thunderbirds (3-3) own victories over Yale and Bowling Green, as well as a double-overtime loss at California. John Knight III, a preseason all-conference selection and the most recent Big Sky Player of the Week, leads the team in scoring (19.3 points per game) and assists (3.5).
Southern Utah’s top five scorers this year also were the team’s top five scorers last year.
The Thunderbirds went 12-2 in conference play last season and won the Big Sky regular-season title.
The Eagles finished third last year but won the conference tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Riley said he is excited by the chance to play one of the conference’s more experienced teams early before the team closes out its nonconference schedule with five more games between now and Dec. 22.
“It’ll be fun to get a conference game and see where we’re at,” Riley said.
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