Earlier in the season, David Riley talked about how the recipe for winning a conference title is to win every home game and split all the road trips.
Eastern Washington’s men’s basketball team has played well enough on offense to abide by that formula, ranking fourth in scoring in the Big Sky Conference.
But on defense, the Eagles haven’t been good enough – especially at Reese Court, where they have played some of the Big Sky’s best teams.
That was the case again in Cheney on Saturday, in an 87-83 loss to Northern Colorado.
“We didn’t make the plays we needed to down the stretch,” said Riley, the Eagles’ first-year head coach. “(But) what stands out to me is our defense. We’ve got to take a step up.”
Northern Colorado shot 57.1% , better than all but one of EWU’s opponents this season (Texas Tech shot 59.2% against Eastern on Dec. 22).
But the Bears were especially sharp in the second half, when they made 15 of 22 field-goal attempts (68.2%).
They also made 15 of 19 free-throw attempts, all in the second half, to hold off the Eagles’ attempts to come back.
Eastern trailed by as many as nine in the second half before taking the lead briefly, 81-80, on a driving basket by Rylan Bergersen with 42.4 seconds left.
Bergersen finished with a team-high 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting and a 6-for-9 effort at the free-throw line. He also had five assists and four steals.
But UNC senior Daylen Kountz, the conference’s leading scorer, answered Bergersen’s basket with a driving basket of his own that reclaimed the lead just 12 seconds later.
EWU’s Ellis Magnuson missed an open 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. While the Bears missed a free throw down the stretch to give the Eagles one more chance at a tie, Linton Acliese III’s leaning attempt in the lane rolled off the rim in the final seconds with the Eagles down two.
The loss dropped the Eagles to 10-8 overall and 4-3 in the Big Sky.
Northern Colorado (10-8, 5-1) had five players score in double figures, led by Kountz’s 29 points, his second-best total of the season.
Senior Bodie Hume added 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Bears, grad transfer Dru Kuxhausen scored 13, and senior Kur Jongkuch added 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including a thundering drive-and-dunk play in the second half.
“Their guys (play) well together,” Eagles senior Angelo Allegri said. “It just makes it hard for us. (But) like coach said, although they have experience, it still comes down to us getting stops.
“That’s definitely a winnable game for us.”
In five home conference games, Eastern has given up an average of 84.2 points, including losses to Northern Colorado, Southern Utah (89-76) and Montana (90-78) as well as wins over Idaho (96-93) and Sacramento State (75-62).
Against Northern Colorado, the Eagles kept pace in the first half and led by as many as six points (27-21) after an Ethan Price basket with 7:36 to go before halftime.
But Kountz quickly hit a jumper, Kuxhausen scored on a steal and layup, and Hume erased the lead completely with a putback on the next possession.
Eastern never had a lead greater than four the rest of the half.
After halftime, the Bears – who lead the Big Sky in 3-pointers – attempted just five 3-pointers, shifting their focus to attacking the basket and drawing fouls.
The Eagles fell behind by as many as nine but rallied behind redshirt freshman Steele Venters, who finished with 25 points, 18 in the second half. Allegri and Acliese each added 10 points.
“We’ve got to find a way to win these tough games,” Riley said, “and we’re kind of stuck on a plateau right now where we’re not defending where we need to defend, and we’ve got to break through that.”
The Eagles play their next five games on the road, including Monday at Idaho State.
From there, they will visit Montana State on Thursday and Montana on Saturday.
The following week, they are scheduled to play at Weber State and Southern Utah, capping a stretch of four consecutive games against teams with winning Big Sky records.
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