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Sports >  EWU basketball

Big Sky Tournament: Eastern Washington unable to convert last-second field goal, lose to Northern Colorado 68-67

UPDATED: Thu., March 10, 2022

Eastern Washington and Northern Colorado players jump for the opening tip at the start of a Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal in Boise.  (Courtesy of EWU)
Eastern Washington and Northern Colorado players jump for the opening tip at the start of a Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal in Boise. (Courtesy of EWU)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – For the second consecutive day at the Big Sky Tournament, the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team positioned itself to make a late comeback with their season on the line.

That attempt succeeded on Wednesday. But on Thursday against Northern Colorado, a deficit that grew to as many as 17 points ultimately proved too deep – but just barely.

Steele Venters, Angelo Allegri and Linton Acliese III each had a chance to score a potential game-winning shot in the paint, but none dropped before the horn sounded, and Northern Colorado survived with a 68-67 victory over Eastern Washington.

“I kind of let it go quickly,” Acliese said. “I thought it was still gonna fall. It just didn’t fall.”

The third-seeded Bears advanced to a semifinal against seventh-seeded Portland State, which upset No. 2 seed Southern Utah earlier in the evening. Top seed Montana State will face No. 4 Weber State in the other semifinal.

The Eagles won this tournament one year ago, but with five new starters this season they are headed home before the semifinals for the first time since 2016. That was also the last time they had to play on the first day of the 11-team tournament; on Wednesday, Eastern (18-15) rallied from nine points down with 5:30 left to beat Northern Arizona 78-75 in the first round.

Each starter played at least 32 minutes that game, something Northern Colorado (19-14) was well aware of.

“When we came into this game, I looked at Eastern Washington’s box score the day before,” UNC coach Steve Smiley said, and then rattled off the high numbers of minutes. “We told our guys that.”

Eastern had an early 6-2 lead, but that evaporated over a 6-minute span when UNC went on a 19-4 run. It was fueled by 3s – five of them. While the Eagles righted themselves – they shot 56% in the first half – at halftime the Bears still had a 42-32 lead, having drained 9 of 18 3-pointers and 42.4% of their shots overall.

The gap only grew in the second – until the final eight minutes, when the redshirt freshman Venters asserted himself with a series of fadeaway 2s and drives to the basket that helped the Eagles gradually chip away at the Bears’ advantage.

“Eastern Washington was not going to go away,” Smiley said.

Venters finished with a team-high 22 points, and in the second half he made 6 of 12 shots and scored 13 of those points.

Defensively, the Eagles stiffened as well, and many of those shots that were falling for the Bears in the first half weren’t in the second, when UNC made 4 of 13 3-pointers and shot 32.3% overall.

Ethan Price blocked three shots, all in the second half, when the Eagles outrebounded the Bears by 12.

That defense spurred a 13-2 EWU run – capped by an off-balance 3 by Venters – that all but erased UNC’s 13 point lead with four minutes to go.

But then Matt Johnson hit a 3 – one of his five – to restore a five point lead for the Bears, and Bodie Hume hit another to push the advantage to eight. Johnson finished with a game-high 24 points.

Still the Eagles continued to attack the basket, and with 1:04 left, Rylan Bergersen drove and got fouled. He made both free throws for the last of his 14 points and drew the Eagles again within three, 68-65.

The Bears didn’t score again.

With about 45 seconds left, Acliese stole the ball from Hume midcourt, drove and got fouled on the other end. He made both free throws with 39.7 seconds left, and the Eagles were as close as they had been since the opening five minutes of the game.

With 12 seconds left, Price blocked Daylen Kountz’s shot; Venters grabbed the loose ball and dribbled the length of the court before putting up his own floater at the top of the lane. It grazed the rim. Allegri grabbed the rebound and tried to put up a shot, but it was partially blocked.

The ball came to Acliese, who got a shot up, but it rolled off the back of the iron. Price tried to tip the ball back in at the buzzer but it never cleared the rim.

“It just shows the character and the grit and the fight of our guys,” EWU coach David Riley said. “We came up one play short.”

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