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Sports >  EWU basketball

Eastern Washington beats turnover-minded Portland State, clinches No. 6 seed to Big Sky tournament

March 5, 2022 Updated Sat., March 5, 2022 at 8:09 p.m.

Eastern Washington's Angelo Allegri drives to the hoop against Portland State on March 5, 2022, in Cheney.  (Courtesy EWU Athletics)
Eastern Washington's Angelo Allegri drives to the hoop against Portland State on March 5, 2022, in Cheney. (Courtesy EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Expecting high-pressure defense from Portland State, the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team got its fill of it on Saturday.

But against a Vikings team that forces more turnovers per game than any other in the Big Sky, the Eagles took care of the basketball enough – especially down the stretch – to earn an 83-75 victory at Reese Court in both teams’ regular-season finale.

The victory means Eastern (17-14 overall, 11-9 Big Sky) will be the No. 6 seed in the Big Sky tournament next week. It will play either Idaho State or Northern Arizona in the opening round at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Portland State drastically increased its defensive pressure in the midseason and the change worked: The Vikings started the season 2-7 in Big Sky games but won eight of their next 10 to get back into the middle of the conference standings.

Considering the last time these teams played neither had its full roster – both teams had multiple players in COVID-19 protocol – the Eagles’ 63-58 win over the Vikings on Dec. 30 hardly seemed a fair comparison.

“Honestly, the full-court press wasn’t necessarily the thing that got us in trouble (Saturday); it was some of their on-ball pressure,” Eagles coach David Riley said. “Some of their fronting and (half-court) defense caught us off guard a little bit. We adjusted in the second half.”

In its previous 10 games, Portland State had a plus-100 overall turnover ratio. On the season, the Vikings’ average turnover margin of plus-4.64 was a full point and a half better than any other Big Sky team.

But the Eagles committed just 15, the second fewest by a Vikings’ opponent since late January, and the Vikings turned the ball over 11 times.

Eastern got 27 points apiece from Linton Acliese III and Angelo Allegri, pacing an offense that made 49.1% of its field goals and 12 of 29 3-point attempts.

Allegri made his first six shots, including four 3s. He finished 9 of 16 from the field, matched a season high with six made 3s and grabbed a team-high 13 rebounds.

“Gelo (Allegri) came out, I think his first (3-pointer) was a step-back in transition, and from there he just felt good,” said Riley, whose team added 18 assists to its conference-leading total. “He had rhythm. Guys found him.”

Acliese – who was honored pregame with fellow grad transfer Rylan Bergersen on Senior Day – also hit 4 of 7 3-pointers and 11 of 16 shots overall. He also had 11 rebounds and four steals.

The production from Allegri and Acliese balanced out an off night from redshirt freshman Steele Venters, who was 1 for 8 from the field and failed to make a 3-pointer for just the second time this season.

But Venters made his presence known in other ways, Riley said.

“He was still bringing gravity to the game, and we were able to play off his gaps,” Riley said of Venters. “And he stepped up. He was still able to have four assists, able to have two blocked shots. He made free throws down the stretch. So he still affected the game in a positive way, which shows the sign of a great player.”

Venters’ 6-for-7 effort from the free-throw line helped salvage what started as a bad night for Eastern. The Eagles made just five of their first 12 free-throw attempts but made 12 of their final 14 and finished 17 of 26.

Portland State led most of the first half before Eastern went on a 7-0 run. Bergersen capped the run with a driving layup just before the halftime buzzer, and the Eagles led 39-36.

After halftime, the Vikings tied it once – at 53 – but never led. Eastern didn’t push its lead to double digits until Bergersen – who started the game 2 for 6 at the line – made two free throws with 1:24 left to make the score 74-64.

“When you miss free throws, it’s a mental thing,” said Bergersen, who has made more free throws this season (117 of 153 attempts) than any other Eagles player. “You’ve got to move on and stay positive about it.”

Eastern evaded Portland State’s full-court press well enough after that to close out the victory, the Eagles’ sixth in their past eight games.

The Vikings, who ended the regular season 10-10 in conference and 12-16 overall, will be the No. 7 seed in the 11-team Big Sky tournament. Khalid Thomas led the Vikings with 26 points.

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