A game featuring eight ties and seven lead changes in the early going transforms quickly with a 29-7 Lumberjack run mid-way through the game
The game featured season highs for lead changes with eight and ties with seven for the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team.
Unfortunately, all of those came in the first 15 1/2 minutes of the game, as Northern Arizona took advantage of cold Eagle shooting from the outside for an 84-65 Big Sky Conference victory Thursday (Jan. 16) at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz.
A 12-3 run to end the first half and a 17-4 run after intermission were the fatal blows for the Eagles, as NAU broke open a close game and snapped EWU’s two-game winning streak.
“The disappointing thing is we came into this game with momentum, but we’ve had to learn a lesson instead of building on a positive,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford, who pin-pointed shot selection and getting away from the game plan as Eastern’s downfall. “You have to keep coaching and teaching so that it doesn’t happen again in the next game.”
Sophomore Tyler Harvey led the Eagles with 25 points, and sophomore Venky Jois had his sixth double-double of the season and 15th of his career with 14 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
The Eagles are now 2-3 in the Big Sky and 7-9 overall after registering a home sweep of Montana (69-62) and Montana State (77-72) last weekend. Northern Arizona, which jumped out to a 24-2 lead at Southern Utah on Monday in a 70-36 romp, is now 4-1 in the league record and 7-9 overall.
“Credit NAU, they whipped us tonight,” Hayford said of the Lumberjacks, who ended up in a three-way tie for first place in the league with Northern Colorado and Montana State. Eastern handed the Bobcats their lone league loss last week, and EWU has yet to play the Bears, who lost Thursday at MSU.
Now 0-8 on opponent home courts this season, the Eagles try to snap that skid Saturday (Jan. 18) at Sacramento State at 7:05 p.m. Pacific time. Sac State was 1-3 in the league and 5-8 overall heading into Thursday’s home game versus Portland State.
Eastern made only 30.4 percent of their shots from the field – its second-worst performance of the year -- including just 4-of-23 3-point shots to equal its season low of 17 percent.
Harvey was just 5-of-13 from the field and 2-of-6 from the 3-point stripe, but made all 13 of his free throws. Junior Parker Kelly chipped in 11 points and made all six of his free throws, but made only 1-of-9 treys to finish 2-of-11 overall from the field.
“If you stick to an offensive game plan and keep the defense off-balance by mixing it up, then you have a chance,” explained Hayford, who wanted his team to work the ball inside more against NAU. “We’ll have to coach a little better so we can understand that.”
Jois, last week’s co-Big Sky Conference Player of the Week, had his third double-double in his last four games. His 15 rebounds eclipsed his previous career high of 14 set three times last January.
“Venky had a great night and really competed,” Hayford said. “We should have gotten the ball to him more.”
With Jois getting eight points and eight rebounds early, neither team had a lead of more than four points in the opening 16 minutes. When Eastern took a 22-20 lead on a 3-pointer by sophomore Daniel Hill – his first points of the season – it would strangely be their last advantage of the game.
Shortly after that, the seventh and final tie at 24 came on a basket by the Eagles with 4:26 left, then NAU started what would become the winning run for the eighth and final lead change.
During the 29-7 run spanning both halves, Eastern went 5:43 without a field goal and NAU had unanswered scoring spurts of 12-0, 6-0 and 11-0 to take a 53-31 lead with 15:04 left. The closest EWU could come after that was 16.
“I want to be the eternal optimist – I think that’s the way you should be as a basketball coach,” added Hayford. “I want to let our guys play with a lot of freedom, and I think that is the way basketball should be played offensively. I don’t want to take away the confidence of our players, but we had a game plan and felt we could get our best looks inside. The shots we were taking weren’t as good compared to the shots that we were getting inside, and we took some shots early in the shot clock when we had advantageous match-ups.”
Last year the Eagles knocked off the Lumberjacks in Flagstaff 77-74 in overtime in the break-out game Harvey. The Eagles trailed by 13 with less than four minutes remaining, but Harvey scored 14 points in the last 8:31 of the game and rallied the Eagles to an improbable win. That victory was Eastern’s first in 13 tries on opponent home courts to that point.
Now a sophomore, Harvey had 44 points with nine 3-pointers and six assists in last week’s sweep to earn College Sports Madness Big Sky Conference Player of the Week accolades. He entered the NAU game ranked second in the Big Sky in scoring for all games (20.3) and first in league games only (23.3).
Jois finished last weekend with 28 points, 17 rebounds, six assists, four blocked shots and three steals, while making 56.3 percent of his field goals (9-of-16) and 62.5 percent of his free throws (10-of-16). Against MSU he had his fifth double-double of the season and 14th of his career, and came three rebounds short of another double-double against UM.