If Eastern Washington kicked off any rust during its 75-63 dispatching of Southern Utah on Thursday, it wasn’t much.
The Eagles, who hadn’t played a game in nearly a month due to several coronavirus-related cancellations, rode junior big man Tanner Groves and a late surge at Reese Court to hand the Thunderbirds their first Big Sky Conference loss.
Groves, who was hit with his fourth foul with more than 12 minutes left in regulation, scored a game-high 25 points and hit a pair of second-half 3-pointers to help hold off a surging Southern Utah team (9-2, 4-1) that was on a school-record nine-game winning streak.
The defending Big Sky champion Eagles (3-4, 2-0) never trailed.
“I was on (Groves’) case at halftime about being more aggressive, I thought there were some 50-50 calls that could have gone either way on him,” EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “When you’re the biggest guy on the court, you’ll get those calls, but he did everything we asked. He was our general.”
Groves, whose second-half 3-pointer helped break open a 40-39 game, said it took a few minutes to get back into the flow of a live basketball game after the long layoff.
EWU also shut down its program for 10 days in the four-week duration due to a positive coronavirus test and contact tracing protocols.
“It was tough, but once we got the first half out of the way, we came out strong,” Groves said.
Jacob Davison scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half and Kim Aiken Jr. (nine points, 10 rebounds) nearly had a double-double for EWU, which shot just 6 for 22 from beyond the arc and committed 13 turnovers.
The Eagles forced Southern Utah into 16 turnovers and 34% shooting (23 for 67).
“We just want to pick them apart, because they don’t have as much chemistry as us,” Aiken said. “We’ve been together a long time. We know how we do on the offensive and defensive end, and dialing on defense to force turnovers was the key for us today.”
Transfer-heavy Southern Utah, which had been paced by former Illinois guard Tevian Jones (19 ppg), was led by Maizen Fausett (14 points, 11 rebounds), Jones (13 points) and Utah State transfer John Knight III (12 points).
Southern Utah, which already swept Montana and Idaho this season, three times came within one possession of EWU before the Eagles went on a run.
A Groves 3-pointer at the top of the key, a thundering baseline dunk by freshman Steele Venters and Davison’s 3-pointer in 90-second span helped the Eagles come alive down the stretch .
The Eagles host Southern Utah again on Saturday at noon.
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