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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Eastern Washington men look to maintain Big Sky lead, win streak on road trip

Eastern Washington Eagles forward Ethan Price (10) vies for the ball against WSU during the first half of a college on Monday, Nov. 21, 2022, at the Spokane Arena in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Looking to extend its record-long winning streak, the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team will be on the road for each of its next three games, starting at Sacramento State on Thursday.

The Hornets made a late charge against the Eagles in Cheney four weeks ago in a game Eastern won 78-75. That was the sixth victory in the 12-game winning streak for the Eagles, who are 16-7 overall and 10-0 in the Big Sky with eight games to go until the conference tournament in early March.

That Jan. 7 game was also the last time the Eagles ran into major issues with turnovers, something that dogged them early this season.

So in some sense, this week’s games – at the Hornets (12-10, 5-4) at 7 p.m. Thursday, then at the Portland State Vikings (9-13, 3-6) at 7 p.m. Saturday – represent a litmus test of sorts, as to whether the Eagles really have solved their turnover problems .

“I think you have to stick with the stuff you did in the previous game that helped you win the game,” EWU sophomore Ethan Price said of the team’s approach to playing a team a second time.

“If we can lower our turnovers, take care of rebounding, other stuff like that, we know that we can win these games.”

Price said the team has been practicing against a variety of defensive styles so that it has an answer for whatever other teams throw at them.

Try as they might, teams haven’t been able to slow the Eagles – whose overall field-goal percentage of 48.1 ranks 28th nationally – consistently enough to beat them.

No one has defeated EWU since Texas Tech did so 77-70 on Dec. 13. That game, Eastern also committed a season-high 21 turnovers.

Four days later, in a 79-68 victory over UC Davis that kicked off this winning streak, the Eagles committed 20 turnovers. Three games later, they had 18 against Montana State, then 20 in a win over Portland State and 17 two days later against Sacramento State.

But since then, the Eagles haven’t committed more than 13 turnovers in any single game, and in each of back-to-back wins at Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona they had just nine.

Still, since conference play began, the Eagles have turned the ball over more than any other Big Sky team (13.2 per game) and have also forced just 98. Only the Hornets, with 83, have forced fewer over that span.

But focusing simply on turnovers can be an imperfect way to judge Eastern’s defense.

“I think at the end of the day, we’re more a percentage defensive team than a possession defensive team,” EWU coach David Riley said. “We’re going to try to limit your clean looks from (inside the arc) and take away 3s from great shooters. That’s our goal.”

Measured by those standards, the Eagles have been among the conference’s best. They have the lowest opponent field-goal percentage (41.6%) in conference games.

No Big Sky team has shot better against the Eagles than did their most recent opponent, Weber State, which made 49% of its shots on Saturday.

Rather than attack the basket, many teams have opted to simply shoot over the Eagles’ defense, and they’ve had some success doing so. Big Sky teams have attempted 287 3-pointers – nearly 30 per game – against the Eagles.

That’s 81 more than have been attempted against any other team in the conference.

Of those attempts, 34.8% have gone in, which gives Eastern the fifth-lowest opponent 3-point percentage in the conference. But teams aren’t making up for their poor shooting inside the arc by making a ton more free throws, either, as Eagles’ opponents have attempted 167 in conference play, third fewest in the Big Sky.

“I think it’s our style of defense,” Price said. “We’re not a super pressure team. I feel like we play a very disciplined style. We’re not like Portland State, which is super pressured and tries to force turnovers. We get stops in different ways.”

The Vikings’ aggressive defensive style has worked: Portland State has forced more turnovers per game (14.7) since conference play opened than any other Big Sky team.

Some turnovers are likely, if not inevitable, because of the aggressive way Eastern plays offense. But the flip side is that among Big Sky teams, the Eagles have the most assists (15 per game), shoot the best from the field (48.1%) and rebound better (plus-6 per game) than anyone else.

Nevertheless, as the Eagles make a push toward the end of the regular season, Riley said the team is working to keep turnover numbers in check. Their goal is 10 or fewer a game, and they’ve only achieved that six times this season.

“We need to get better,” Riley said. “We shouldn’t be turning the ball over that much.”

EWU women look to bounce back

Eastern’s women’s basketball team will host Sacramento State at 6 p.m. Thursday at Reese Court in Cheney, aiming to get back in the win column after Weber State ended the Eagles’ five-game winning streak on Saturday.

The Wildcats, previously winless in Big Sky games, came back in the fourth quarter to beat the Eagles 68-65.

Despite the loss, the Eagles (13-7, 6-4) are still tied for fourth in the conference standings and are two games back of leader Montana State (8-2).

The Eagles played the past two games without junior Jacinta Buckley, who leads the team in rebounding (7.3 per game) and ranks second in scoring (11.1).

In their first matchup this season, the Hornets defeated the Eagles 82-74 on Jan. 7 in Sacramento, California.