Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans mixed things up.
He took preseason Big Sky Most Valuable Player Jacob Davison out of the starting lineup following a gut-wrenching loss to Northern Colorado on Thursday and part-time starting guard Casson Rouse saw all of 6 minutes in the weekend series.
If Legans wanted a spark, he got it. Eventually.
The Eagles shook off one of their slowest starts in the Legans era on Saturday and answered with a 55-point second half, downing the Bears 82-76 to leave Greeley, Colorado, with a road split.
Kim Aiken Jr. scored 13 of his team-high 17 points in the final 13 minutes and added eight rebounds for the Eagles (4-6, 3-2 Big Sky), who hit all 10 free throws down the stretch to hold off Northern Colorado (8-7, 5-5).
Junior big man Tanner Groves added 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Jack Perry hit a pair of key 3-pointers to spark a late run that helped put the Bears, who led 30-27 at halftime, away for good.
Often heavy on 3-point attempts, EWU was just 5 for 17 from 3-point range against the conference’s top perimeter defensive team. The Eagles found ways to score by other means, boosted by a 42-28 rebounding advantage.
“We got guys who score inside and guys who shoot from long range,” Legans said. “There’s a reason people thought we would win the league again.
“We have scorers. It’s a confidence thing.”
In Thursday’s 78-76 loss to the Bears, Davison committed a turnover when driving the lane to attempt a winning basket. He immediately committed an ill-advised foul on Northern Colorado’s Matt Johnson 75 feet away from the Bears’ hoop. Johnson hit the bonus free throws for the win.
Mike Meadows (nine points) started in place of Davison on Saturday. Davison didn’t sit long, scoring 11 points and adding five rebounds and two steals.
“(The lineup change) was a spark plug to get things going,” Legans said. “There’s a lot of pressure on Davison this year. He has battled some injuries and people are keying on him. He is a stud.
In a game Legans dubbed a “must win,” EWU began to find its rhythm when Groves and Northern Colorado standout Bodie Hume were part of a double-technical foul call midway through the second half when the Bears led 47-46.
The Eagles proceeded to score 36 points in the final 12 minutes.
Perry’s high-arching 3-pointer at the top of the key at the 7:56 mark gave EWU a 58-57 lead it didn’t relinquish.
“He was big down the stretch,” Legans said of Perry.
Johnson led Northern Colorado with a game-high 23 points.
EWU plays host to Sacramento State (6-3, 4-2) on Thursday and Saturday at Reese Court.
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