Among the many formidable players on the Southern Utah roster, Jason Spurgin wasn’t one on whom the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team was particularly focused.
That turned out to be a mistake.
The 6-foot-11 Spurgin absorbed a series of charges and made all six of his first-half shots, and in the second half the more heralded Thunderbirds guards picked up their scoring to hold off the Eagles 89-76 on Thursday night at Reese Court in Cheney in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams.
“Yeah, he made a huge difference,” Eagles senior Rylan Bergersen said of Spurgin. “He’s a guy that we weren’t super focused on in scout, and it came back to bite us.”
Spurgin, a sophomore who only played in nine Big Sky games last season, scored a career-high 13 points. Senior guard Dre Marin also set a career high with 28 points, 17 of which came in the second half.
Senior John Knight III, the Big Sky’s leading scorer, added 22 points and seven assists to go with seven of the Thunderbirds’ 15 turnovers.
Eastern (3-4, 0-1 Big Sky) trailed by 13 at halftime after allowing Southern Utah (4-3, 1-0) to shoot 54.5% in the first 20 minutes; the Eagles shot 36% in the first half.
The Eagles fell behind by as many as 17 points a few minutes after halftime. They overcame that kind of deficit on Saturday at Washington State, and they nearly got even with Southern Utah, too.
With EWU trailing 53-36, redshirt freshman Steele Venters drained a 3-pointer from one wing and then from the other on the next possession to cut Southern Utah’s lead to 11. EWU sophomore Ellis Magnuson hit another 3-pointer the next time down, and suddenly the Thunderbirds’ lead was eight.
A couple of possessions later, Eagles freshman forward Casey Jones scored a basket inside to make the score 53-47. A Marin basket stopped the run, but Venters answered with a dunk to get the lead back down to six points.
The Eagles never quite pulled within a possession – the closest they got was four points (73-69) – and the Thunderbirds re-established their offensive rhythm, enough so to keep the Eagles at bay.
“We were doing the same kind of concepts, the same kind of stuff that we scouted, and we just did it better in the second half,” Bergersen said. “We’ve just got to realize the Washington State game’s not going to happen every time. We dug ourselves a hole, we came back, and we thought we would be able to do the same thing here, and you can’t do that every game.”
Venters ended with a career-high 29 points on 9-of-17 shooting, including 6-of-11 from 3-point range. Bergersen added 15 points and recorded team highs in assists (seven) and rebounds (six).
Foul trouble – some of it caused by the charges Spurgin took in the first half – haunted the Eagles, who were without freshman center Ethan Price and Jones for long stretches of the game because of it. Eastern also played without leading rebounder Linton Acliese III, sidelined with a lower leg injury.
The Thunderbirds had a 42-20 scoring advantage in the paint and outrebounded the Eagles 38-29.
“When we’re playing well, we play good team defense,” Eagles coach David Riley said, “so I think our concepts don’t change a whole lot (without Price and Jones), but obviously it helps when we have a big body in there who can help us out.”
Eastern will play its next three games on the road, starting with a game at Omaha (1-6) on Saturday. Its next home game is against NAIA Multnomah on Dec. 15.
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