If Steele Venters is just warming up, then the preseason All-Big Sky Conference selection looks to be in for a big sophomore season.
Venters blew past his season high and his career high in points, scoring 33 at Reese Court on Saturday in the Eagles’ 78-70 nonconference victory over North Dakota State.
“It’s all about mindset for him,” Eagles coach David Riley said. “I’ve got to do a better job early in games of just finding ways to get him to the rim and finding ways for him to assert that aggressiveness. When he does that, it’s pretty fun to watch.”
Venters finished 14 of 19 from the field, setting career-best marks in shots made and shots attempted. He scored 15 of the Eagles’ first 24 points, helping them create early separation against a Bison squad still looking for its second win of the year (1-8).
Venters – who scored as many as 20 points just once earlier this year – has made a name for himself as a 3-point shooter, leading the conference in percentage last year. But against the Bison, he was 3 of 7 from 3-point range and just 2 of 2 from the free-throw line. Most of his shots came either on drives or midrange jumpers.
“My mindset coming into the game was to be aggressive,” Venters said. “Get downhill, get to the paint, and everything would open up from there.”
Venters also led a strong defensive effort from the Eagles (3-5), who had eight steals and matched a season high with five blocks. Venters had three of the steals and two of the blocks, one of which led to a fast-break dunk by Venters on the other end.
After allowing Florida International to make 55.2% of its shots in a 90-79 victory on Sunday, EWU made a concerted effort to stay in front of NDSU players , playing in gaps and forcing contested shots, Riley said.
Players bought in, Riley said, and they held the Bison to 45.8% shooting. NDSU also attempted only seven free throws . The Eagles shot 51.6% overall and made 7 of 10 free-throw attempts.
Eastern controlled the pace most of the way, taking a 24-17 lead on a Venters 3-pointer midway through the first half. The Eagles stretched their lead to as many as 11 points before the Bison cut the deficit to 38-35 at halftime.
The Eagles pushed their advantage to 53-44, but the Bison charged back with a 10-0 run scored entirely by Damari Wheeler-Thomas, giving NDSU a 54-53 lead.
But it was short-lived. Venters bounced in a 3 and made a fadeaway basket, restoring Eastern’s lead. The Eagles never trailed again.
Besides Venters’ 33 points, which topped his previous career best of 29, the Eagles got nine points apiece from sophomore Ethan Price and senior Angelo Allegri, along with 12 off the bench from sophomore Cedric Coward.
Coward played nearly 21 minutes and grabbed seven rebounds to go with two steals. Sophomore Casey Jones also came off the bench to score five points and grab a team-high eight rebounds.
“Cedric and Casey, they have an ability to come into a game and change it with their energy, their effort and their length,” Riley said. “Those two came in and made some big plays for us.”
Jacari White and Wheeler-Thomas scored 14 apiece to lead the Bison.
It was Eastern’s first true home game of the season, having played as far west as Hawaii and as far east as Florida. Next, the Eagles go to California to play Cal at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. They play again at home Dec. 17 against UC Davis.
“We’ve been on the road too much,” Venters said, “(in) a million different time zones, so it was good to be back home, get a win.”
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