During Eastern Washington’s run to the NCAA Tournament last season, Steele Venters appeared in 17 games and scored 61 points.
But after three games as a redshirt freshman again this fall, Venters has shown that he’s going to have a much larger role for the Eagles this season.
Venters scored a game-high 27 points on 9 of 13 shooting and led the Eagles with six assists in a 111-71 victory over NAIA Walla Walla on Monday night at Reese Court.
The victory was David Riley’s first as Eastern’s head coach after he was promoted from associate head coach last season.
“I’m just happy we took a step forward today,” Riley said. “That’s been our big theme since the beginning of fall: The only way to win a championship is step by step. Our guys understand that, and we’ve got a huge process to grow in right now, and today was a good day.”
Eastern’s 111 points were its most in a regular-season game since a 146-89 victory over Multnomah on Dec. 13, 2019. Multnomah, which plays in the Cascade Collegiate Conference with Walla Walla, will play at Reese Court on Dec. 15.
Venters, who redshirted in his 2019-20 season and got an extra year of eligibility (like all college athletes) due to the pandemic, now has 57 points in three games this season.
More than half of the team’s roster transferred last spring when Shantay Legans left to become the Portland Pilots head coach, and Riley has replaced the departed with a collection of transfers and freshmen.
But there are still a handful of players who stuck around, players like Venters, who are looking to assert their role on the team going forward.
“It felt good,” Venters said. “I think coming off (losses at) Nevada and UC Davis, we just wanted to win.”
The Eagles (1-2) grabbed 18 more rebounds than the Wolves (0-4) and assisted on 26 of their 40 made field goals. Eastern shot 56.3% from the field, scored 29 fast-break points and got more than half their points (62 of them) in the paint.
Freshman post Ethan Price controlled that space much of the game, scoring 19 points and collecting 11 rebounds, often right over the heads of the shorter Walla Walla players. Junior transfer Linton Acliese III added 20 points and six rebounds.
“He brings everything, literally,” Venters said of Acliese. “He’s kind of the rock to our team, brings energy every day and works super hard.”
One aspect of the game Riley was not impressed with, however, was the Eagles’ second-half defense. Eastern played 11 men in the game, all of them at least 8 minutes. But after holding the Wolves to 27% shooting in the first half, the Wolves made 45.5% of their second-half field-goal attempts.
“That second half, we started off the right way defensively, but we gave up 44 points in that second half which isn’t good enough, and a lot of that came down to discipline,” Riley said. “If we stick to our principles, if we do what we’re supposed to do, I don’t think they score 44 points on contested 2s and tough 3s.”
Freshman Mason Landdeck came off the bench and scored 10 points while also nabbing three steals. Yousef Elkugia, another of the team’s 10 freshmen, hit a pair of 3-pointers in the second half, the second of which pushed the Eagles past 100 points, and finished with eight points off the bench.
A benefit from playing with a 20-point lead most of the game was that the Eagles could rotate in players who hadn’t yet seen many minutes of game time, Riley said.
“It’s a good lesson for those guys that didn’t necessarily get big minutes the first couple games, just how we need to have discipline out there, (and) for us to play you we have to trust you,” Riley said, “and understanding that consistently and how important that
is. There were some good lessons they learned, and some guys showed that discipline, and it was fun to go see that.”
After starting the last two games, sophomore guard Casson Rouse — who returned from last year’s team — missed the game Monday after suffering what Riley said looks like “a pretty bad knee injury” against UC Davis.
“We’re just waiting for the MRI to get that 100 percent confirmation, but it’s a tough road ahead for him,” Riley said. “He’s going to have a great career ahead of him.”
Eastern plays at Cal State Northridge as part of the Empire Classic on Friday, followed Saturday by a game against either Dixie State or Texas State.
One week later, the Eagles will play at Washington State on Nov. 27, followed by an early conference game, at home, against Southern Utah on Dec. 2.
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