Two weeks ago, the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team set off on a five-game road trip with a winning record in conference play and a string of games against the teams ahead of them in the standings.
It was an opportunity to gain some ground, but it didn’t work out as the Eagles hoped.
Eastern lost four of those games, capped by Saturday night’s 84-72 loss at Southern Utah in Cedar City.
It was the Eagles’ second loss this season to the Thunderbirds, and it dropped Eastern to 5-7 in Big Sky games and under .500 (11-12) overall. It was also the Eagles’ fourth loss in a row, following losses at Montana State, Montana and Weber State.
“Weber State and Southern Utah definitely have the most talent in the league,” Eagles head coach David Riley said in a postgame radio interview. “If you want to win those games, you’ve got to guard … we didn’t handle our business defensively.”
Steele Venters scored 19 points, more than the redshirt freshman had since the first game of this five-game swing – the Eagles’ lone win – at Idaho State. Ethan Price had his second straight 6-for-10 shooting night and scored 14 points, an encouraging sign for the freshman post, who also was called for his fewest fouls (two) in his past nine games.
“Ethan showed some flashes of just how dominant he can be,” Riley said.
But after allowing Weber State to shoot 53.7% against them on Monday, the Eagles again struggled on defense. The Thunderbirds (15-6, 9-2 Big Sky) made 29 of 56 field goals (51.8%) and 10 of 21 3-point attempts, the second-best 3-point shooting percentage by an Eagles opponent this year.
Eastern led 37-36 at halftime after leading almost all of the first 20 minutes, but Southern Utah seized control in the second half. Tevian Jones hit a 3-pointer with just over 8 minutes left to give the Thunderbirds a 66-55 lead, their first double-digit advantage.
After that, the closest Eastern got was within four (70-66) on a Venters’ 3-pointer. Harrison Butler answered with a three-point play, on which Linton Acliese III was called for his fourth foul with 3:08 left. From there, Southern Utah made 4 of 5 field-goal attempts and 8 of 9 free-throw attempts to ice the game.
Jones matched Venters’ scoring total with a game-high 19 points Four other Thunderbirds reached double digits in scoring.
Eastern shot 50.9% overall and went 10 of 27 from 3-point range, making at least 10 for the sixth time in eight games. Venters went 4 for 9 from beyond the arc after making just three of his previous 15 attempts.
“He’s a worker,” Riley said of Venters, “so I think the worst thing that could happen to him is for us to go on the road for 10 days and not be able to get into the gym. I think that messed with his rhythm a little bit.”
Grad transfers Acliese and Rylan Bergersen each added 11 points.
Eastern returns home this week to play the top team in the conference standings, Weber State (18-6, 11-2), on Thursday night, and one of its bottom teams, Idaho State (4-16, 2-9), on Saturday afternoon.
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