PULLMAN – Steele Venters “knew it was going in.”
The star Eastern Washington guard stationed himself in the corner. Teammate Angelo Allegri drove toward the baseline, drawing the attention of Washington State defenders, and dished a pinpoint pass to Venters.
“It was a perfect rhythm shot,” Venters said. “I was pretty much wide open.”
Venters buried the clutch 3-pointer with 16 seconds remaining, putting his team ahead by three points in a wild postseason game that included plenty of momentum shifts.
“He’s earned the right to take those shots,” EWU coach David Riley said. “He was the recipient of a great pass. Nerves of steel.”
The Cougars couldn’t respond on the other end. Forward Andrej Jakimovski’s 3 missed the mark and EWU closed out an 81-74 victory in a thrilling first-round NIT game Tuesday night at Beasley Coliseum.
“That was a really intense postseason game,” said WSU Kyle Smith, whose team ended its season at 17-17. “Hats off to Eastern. They played really well and Venters made all the plays late.”
After Jakimovski’s missed 3, the Eagles secured the rebound and WSU was forced to foul, sending Venters to the line for a one-and-one. He missed the first free throw, but hustled for the offensive rebound, then drew a foul and sealed the game from the line.
Venters, the Big Sky Conference MVP, knocked down floaters, midrange jumpers and four 3s, finishing with 27 points on 50% from the field to lead an Eagles offense that shot 48.3% from the floor and handed WSU’s defense one of its worst games of the year. EWU’s point total was the third-highest scoring output the Cougars have surrendered all season.
Allegri and guard Tyreese Davis had 12 points apiece for EWU, which rallied midway through the second half, coming back from a 9-point deficit to avenge an 82-56 loss to WSU on Nov. 21 in Spokane.
“At the end of the day, it’s whatever team wants it more,” Cougars forward DJ Rodman said. “We wanted it, but they wanted it more.”
The teams traded runs throughout the second half. The seesaw game featured 23 lead changes.
Rodman paced WSU with a career-high 23 points, shooting 5 of 14 from the field but 10 of 11 from the foul line. He added eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. Guards TJ Bamba and Jabe Mullins had 15 points apiece, and Jakimovski chipped in 11. Bamba and Jakimovski combined to shoot just 9 of 31 from the floor.
WSU played without star big man Mouhamed Gueye. The All-Pac-12 first-teamer was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Gueye, who played through the injury last week during the Pac-12 tournament, was ruled out earlier Tuesday.
“The doctor said, ‘Let’s play it safe here,’ ” Smith said. “His health is our first concern. It would’ve been nice to get it done without him. I’m proud of our guys for playing that way. Obviously, he’s a pretty important piece, a focal point on both sides of the ball.”
The Cougs’ offense moves through Gueye. With the 6-11 sophomore missing his first game of the season, WSU struggled on the boards – EWU outrebounded the Cougs 39-29 – and leaned heavily on the 3-ball.
The Cougs shot 40% from the field and 14 of 30 from 3-point range – they went 9 of 15 from deep in the second half, hitting 7 of their first 9 triple tries in the period.
“They’re one of the better shooting teams in the country,” Riley said. “We just had to stick with our game plan, make a few adjustments. We found a way to get stops down the stretch.
“Offensively, we got the ball zipping around a little bit more. Defensively, we started playing together. We weren’t perfect, but the guys had each other’s backs.”
The Cougs were held to four points over the final 3:20.
WSU caught fire from beyond the arc to climb out of a 9-point halftime hole. The Cougs piled up 3s while EWU struggled to find consistency on offense. WSU went up by nine points midway through the half, hitting four triples on as many possessions during a 17-2 run that spanned four minutes.
“It’s a bummer, getting up nine, that we couldn’t get that thing to the finish line,” Smith said. “In the locker room, I was a little animated, a little upset (that) we gave that game away a little bit.”
The Cougs cooled off and EWU responded with a 12-2 run over 3 minutes, setting up the dramatic finish.
“We had to keep our heads right, stay mentally tough,” Venters said. “We knew we were going to make a run.”
The teams were locked in a one-possession game for the first 14 minutes of a fast-paced matchup featuring efficient scoring on both ends and 13 first-half lead changes.
EWU shot over 70% for most of the half and controlled the glass, exploiting WSU’s shorthanded frontcourt. But the Eagles committed nine turnovers and the Cougs’ shooters, led by Rodman, kept responding to keep it tight.
EWU created some separation late in the half on a 10-0 run, sparked by Venters’ 4-point play with 6 minutes left. WSU went cold down the stretch, missing its last eight field-goal attempts over the final 4:45 of the half, and the Eagles took a 43-34 lead into halftime.
The Eagles, who won the Big Sky regular-season title but bowed out of the conference tourney in the quarterfinals, advance to meet the winner of top-seeded Oklahoma State and Youngstown State.
“It’s great to be back on the winning side of things,” Riley said. “This is one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of. For us to get a chance to keep going and extend this special season is great. We know what this team’s made of. We’re ready to make a run.”