Eastern Washington focuses on defense to try and recapture winning ways in NIT
March 13, 2023 Updated Mon., March 13, 2023 at 7:50 p.m.
Following its first-round Big Sky Tournament loss to Northern Arizona, the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team high-tailed it out of Boise and, for two days, Angelo Allegri didn’t shoot a basketball once.
“I just really disconnected from the game,” the EWU redshirt senior said. “It was well needed.”
With the dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament set aside for at least another year, the Eagles are focusing on their appearance in the National Invitation Tournament, which for Eastern begins with a first-round game Tuesday, 8 p.m., at Washington State in Pullman.
“We still get to play,” Allegri said. “I have friends whose seasons are done and careers are over, so the fact that I still get to put on that jersey and keep contributing to this team is a big-time opportunity.”
This will be Allegri’s second shot at the NIT. In 2019, he played for UNC Greensboro, which was eliminated in the second round.
Eastern Washington makes its second appearance in the NIT , following a 2003 first-round loss to Wyoming.
“When you look at the teams that are in it, that’s when it hits you,” EWU coach David Riley said. “You’re playing high-level teams that had great seasons.
“(Playing in the NIT is) not the dream of the year, but it’s something where it’s definitely not little, either.”
Eastern Washington had built an 18-game winning streak that was the longest in Division I. Riley said the team needs to recapture the defensive grit the team had then but didn’t have during the team’s three recent losses.
Perimeter defense – particularly against 3-point shooters – was a driving force behind Eastern’s winning streak. But on Feb. 25 Idaho State made 10 of 28 3-point attempts in a streak-ending 71-63 victory over Eastern.
Two days later in Cheney, Montana State shot 52.7% from the field in a 79-74 win. Only one other team made more than 50% of its shots against the Eagles all year: Florida International in the season’s seventh game.
In Eastern’s Big Sky tournament opener, Northern Arizona made 10 of 28 3s, none bigger than the buzzer-beating 28-footer by Oakland Fort that sent the Lumberjacks into the semifinals. They also made 49.3% of their shots overall.
Eastern shot above its season average in the losses to MSU (51.9%) and NAU (56.9%), but, Riley said, the Eagles didn’t play well enough on the other end.
“Defensively we were not as tight as we needed to be. I think that’s the biggest thing, especially the last two games,” Riley said. “What wins in tournaments is defense.”
When Washington State beat Eastern Washington 82-56 on Nov. 21 at Spokane Arena, the Cougars made 15 of 30 3-pointers while the Eagles made 6 of 27. Eastern fell behind by 18 in the first half and wasn’t able to rally like it did a year earlier, when the Eagles beat the Cougars in Pullman.
Neither of those games has a ton of bearing on this one, Allegri said.
“They lit us up last time we played them, but we were a totally different team,” Allegri said. “That was before we really hit our stride.”
The Eagles went 3-3 in the four weeks after that loss before they won the first of their 18 straight on Dec. 17 over UC Davis.
Now it’s a matter of whether the Eagles can recapture what they had during the streak and make a run in the NIT, similar to what the Cougars – who are again a No. 4 seed in the bracket – did in reaching the tournament semifinals last year.
“The thing that’s driving us is we get a chance to write another chapter to this special season,” Riley said. “We’re going to enjoy that.”
So, not only do the Eagles get a chance to demonstrate how far they have come since November; they also get a chance to show how far they can still go in March.
“We have a resilient group,” Riley said. “We all understand what’s in front of us. It’s a great chance to play on a national stage.”
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