The finish of the Eastern Washington men’s basketball game Saturday demonstrated just how important end-of-game free throws can be.
As it turned out against Idaho State, the Eagles needed every one of them.
Steele Venters went 6 for 6 from the free-throw line for the Eagles’ only points in the last 2 minutes, and Tarik Cool’s 3-point attempt in the final seconds clanged off the rim as Eastern held off Idaho State 75-72 at Reese Court in Cheney.
The victory got Eastern back over .500 overall at 13-12 and back to .500 at 7-7 in Big Sky Conference games.
Paired with a 75-67 victory over Weber State on Thursday, the Eagles swept a home weekend for the first time in three such situations this season.
“We had another good closing of the game,” EWU coach David Riley said. “We made the plays we needed to, for the most part, down the stretch to win this game. Free throws were included in that.”
Idaho State trailed 38-29 at halftime but made 7 of 9 shot attempts to open the second half.
Cool capped that run with a shot in the lane to tie the game at 44. Cool finished with a team-high 20 points.
Idaho State (5-18, 3-11 Big Sky), which had won two of its past three games, took the lead twice in the second half, including a 50-49 edge on Daxton Carr’s putback slam dunk.
But Carr earned a technical for taunting on the play, and Eastern answered with a 9-0 run. Venters started it with the two free throws off the technical, Ellis Magnuson hit a nifty turnaround in the lane on the next possession, and Angelo Allegri hit a layup and then a fast-break 3.
“I think we made a more conscious effort to be aware of those situations more recently than we were at the start of the season, knowing that when they do have these runs, we can’t go within ourselves,” EWU freshman post Ethan Price said of the stretch, during which he had a block and an assist. “We have to notice that and be like, right, it’s time for our own.”
Still, the Bengals clawed back to tie the game at 63 before Rylan Bergersen – who, saddled with four fouls, sat for nearly 12 minutes of the second half – drove for the fourth of his five baskets in the game, all in the paint.
Bergersen finished with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting. The grad transfer also hit 4 of 5 free throws and had a team-high eight rebounds.
“(Bergersen was) just being aggressive and trying to get downhill. That’s huge for him,” Riley said. “He’s a super strong, skilled, high-IQ guy and he takes what the defense gives him. When Idaho State was getting spread out on (Allegri) and Steele (Venters), he was able to get downhill and make the right reads.”
The Eagles made one key mistake late when Allegri succumbed to a trap and threw the ball to ISU’s Malik Porter, who dunked the ball with 9 seconds left to allow the Bengals to trim the deficit to 73-72.
But Eastern successfully inbounded the ball to Venters. After he was fouled, the redshirt freshman made his final two free throws. He finished with a game-high 21 points on 5-of-13 shooting (3 for 6 from 3-point range) and an 8-for-8 day at the free-throw line.
The Eagles made 18 of 20 free throws and the Bengals made 10 of 12.
The Bengals committed just six fouls, the fewest of any Eagles’ opponent this season.
Allegri had 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Price finished with six rebounds and three assists, scoring all of his 11 points in the first half.
“Just being patient and aggressive: That’s what I’ve been focusing on the past few weeks and months,” Price said. “(Shots) were not dropping in the second half, but I felt like what I was doing was right; they just weren’t falling.”
Price has scored in double digits five consecutive games, the longest such active streak on the team after Linton Acliese III’s 12-game streak ended with a four-point game Saturday.
On Thursday night, Eastern hosts first-place Montana State (20-5, 12-2) before visiting Idaho (6-18, 3-11) on Saturday afternoon.
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