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Sports >  EWU basketball

Late defensive stretch helps Eastern Washington beat Northern Arizona, advance in Big Sky tournament

UPDATED: Wed., March 9, 2022

Eastern Washington’s bench reacts during a Big Sky Conference Tournament game against Northern Arizona Wednesday in Boise.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
Eastern Washington’s bench reacts during a Big Sky Conference Tournament game against Northern Arizona Wednesday in Boise. (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Stretches of poor defense plagued Eastern Washington’s men’s basketball team during many games this season.

Another one nearly cost the Eagles again Wednesday.

But after a dismal start to the second half, Eastern’s defense toughened. Down nine points with 5 minutes, 30 seconds left, the Eagles retook the lead with a 14-2 run and beat Northern Arizona 78-75 on Wednesday to reach the quarterfinals at the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Boise.

“(NAU’s) guys knew it was their last chance, and they fought,” Eastern coach David Riley told reporters after the game. “That was a really fun game.”

Northern Arizona, the bottom seed in the 11-team tournament, opened the second half on a 10-0 run to take a four-point lead. The Lumberjacks didn’t give it up until the 2-minute mark, when Steele Venters pump-faked under the basket, rose up for a layup and drew a foul. He completed the three-point play, and Eastern had a 72-71 lead.

Two free throws by Rylan Bergersen stretched the advantage with 1:07 left. NAU made just one of its final seven shots from the field, and Linton Acliese III’s free throw with 2.9 seconds left – after a three-quarter court inbound pass from Ethan Price – gave sixth-seeded Eastern the final three-point lead.

The Lumberjacks couldn’t release a game-tying attempt, and the defending champion Eagles secured the program’s eighth victory in its past 10 games at the Big Sky Tournament.

Playing in the event for the first time, Acliese and Boise native Bergersen scored 20 and 18 points, respectively, helping spearhead the comeback.

But it was again an ensemble effort from the Eagles: Redshirt freshman Venters added 19 points, senior Angelo Allegri contributed 12, and six Eastern players combined to make 21 of 25 free-throw attempts.

Although the Eagles were outrebounded 37-32 – a total that included 18 offensive boards for NAU – Eastern’s defense improved when it needed to late in the game. NAU, the Big Sky’s worst field-goal shooting team in the regular season, started the second half 10 of 15 from the field but made just six of its final 21 attempts.

“I’m just proud of our guys for sticking with it, especially down the stretch when we needed to get stops, when we needed to get rebounds,” said Riley, who many times this season lamented his team’s costly defensive lapses. “They did a great job of that and found a way.”

Redshirt freshman Carson Towt led the Lumberjacks with 21 points and added 16 rebounds, both season highs. In Eastern’s 69-62 win over NAU last week, Towt had just four points.

“Carson Towt was relentless,” Acliese said. “When a guy like that – that big, that strong, that versatile – has his last chance (of the season), it’s really hard to guard, and really hard to stop.”

Sophomore Jalen Cone, a third-team all-conference selection, scored 19 for the Lumberjacks. The Eagles made a point to make him chase more on defense, Riley said, in the hopes of wearing him down.

Still, Bergersen said, Cone – who scored at least 19 points in 19 games this season – was difficult to account for.

“(Cone was) running all over the floor and he was shooting tough shots and he was making tough shots,” Bergersen said, “so it’s tough. It’s impossible to completely stop a guy like that.”

Eastern (18-14) has won seven of its past nine games. NAU (9-23) ends the year on an eight-game losing streak.

The Eagles will face Northern Colorado (18-14), the No. 3 seed, at 7 p.m. in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The teams split their regular-season series; Eastern won the most recent meeting 85-76, on Feb. 24 in Greeley.

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