David Riley has been around the Eastern Washington men’s basketball program long enough to appreciate how well the Idaho Vandals are capable of playing, whatever their record might be.
“It’s never easy against the Vandals,” Riley said.
It certainly wasn’t easy or comfortable for Eastern on Saturday, but the Eagles put together a stronger offensive performance against the Vandals than they did two nights earlier and defeated Idaho 96-93 to get back over .500 in Big Sky Conference play.
The next step, Riley said, is for the Eagles to keep a lead at 13 points, rather than letting it dwindle to a single possession, as they did against the Vandals.
But at least they were in that position late, after playing perpetual catchup in a 90-78 loss to Montana on Thursday.
Against the Vandals (3-10, 0-3 Big Sky), Eastern started both halves well and rarely trailed, a flipped script from the game against the Grizzlies.
Steele Venters, third in the conference in scoring average, powered the Eagles with 25 points, four shy of his season high, while hitting 5 of 10 3-point attempts. He also grabbed eight rebounds and blocked a shot.
“He makes us go,” Angelo Allegri said of his teammate. “Him making those 3s completely opens it up for everybody else.”
Allegri added 21 points and a team-best nine rebounds as part of a balanced scoring effort for the Eagles (9-7, 3-2). Each starter had at least 13 points, and Mason Landdeck added another seven off the bench.
Allegri also had four assists and three steals in perhaps his best performance of the season.
“That’s just how I need to play every night,” Allegri said. “When I’m playing at the highest level like that, I just have to hold myself accountable and just demand that from myself.”
Eastern had a 39-36 lead at halftime after leading by as many as nine. In the first 5 minutes after the half, the Eagles extended their lead to 11 with a 9-0 run capped by a Venters 3-pointer set up by an Allegri offensive rebound.
But Idaho stuck around. Mikey Dixon scored 15 of his team-high 25 points after halftime and sank 12 of 13 free-throw attempts overall. Rashad Smith made 5 of 7 3-pointers and scored 17 points, part of a 13-for-27 3-point effort for the Vandals, who shoot the 3 better than any other Big Sky team.
Down by 10 with 3:33 left, Idaho chipped away, mostly by attacking the basket and pressing on defense. Freshman Tanner Christensen, a University High graduate, had 14 points, including four down the stretch as Idaho mounted a comeback.
Down by five points with 17.2 seconds left, Dixon hit a basket in the lane, was fouled and made the free throw and cut Eastern’s lead to 92-90.
But the Eagles inbounded the ball to Linton Acliese III, who was fouled and made both his free throws. Smith missed a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. Allegri rebounded it and hit two free throws to ice the game.
The Vandals turned 13 Eagles turnovers into 27 points and had a 16-9 edge in second-chance points thanks to their 14 offensive rebounds. But the Eagles – who have now won seven of their past 13 games against the Vandals – shot better overall (54.5%) than the Vandals (45.1%), as Eastern scored more points than it had against any other Division I opponent this year.
“The flow was great,” Riley said. “That’s something we talked about versus Montana. We had an advantage a lot and we tried to score off that first advantage, and we were really quick (with our) possessions: one or two passes, and the ball wasn’t moving. There wasn’t much energy with the ball.
“Tonight, we did a great job of not just scoring on that good one but moving it for a great one.”
That showed, Riley said, in the team’s 19 assists and their 14 made 3-pointers, a season high.
The Eagles also got a strong game from freshman post Ethan Price. Price leads the team in fouls this season, but he avoided such trouble against Idaho. He played 30 minutes and scored 17 points, his most against a D-I team this season, and he went 3 for 3 from 3-point range.
“We always tell Ethan, ‘We need you to have that emotional presence,’ ” Allegri said. “There’ve been some games when he’s been in foul trouble, and he’s not able to get in the flow.
“But when he’s able to play like (Saturday), and bring that emotional presence, he makes us go as well.”
Eastern goes back on the road this week with scheduled games at Idaho State on Thursday and Weber State on Saturday. Idaho will play the same opponents but on opposite nights.
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