One prize got away, but there is still the grand prize yet to go.
The Eastern Washington University men's basketball team rallied at times in the second half, but a 20-point deficit in the first half was too much to overcome as Eastern ended the Big Sky Conference regular season with a 76-61 road loss at Northern Arizona on Saturday (March 4) at the Walkup Skydome.
Had the Eagles won, they would have won a share of their fourth regular season Big Sky title in school history. Earlier on Saturday, North Dakota wrapped up at least a share of the league title and the No. 1 seed in the tournament with an 82-73 victory over Portland State.
Junior Bogdan Bliznyuk scored 28 and senior Felix Von Hofe had 15 to lead EWU, but senior Jacob Wiley was held to six shots and five total points. Northern Arizona out-shot EWU 43 percent to 35 percent and out-rebounded the Eagles 46-29.
"They are crazy disappointed," Eastern head coach Jim Hayford said of his team, which concluded the league season with the second-most Big Sky wins in school history with 13 (13-5). "They showed fight all the way down to the end, but we just dug too big of a hole. We win together and we lose together."
The loss ended EWU's winning streak at five games, but EWU will still enter the league tournament with a 21-10 record and victories in 10 of its last 13 games. Eastern's previous four league losses were by a combined 19 points (6, 3, 1, 9).
The Eagles now need to win three games in Reno, Nevada, to win the Big Sky Tournament title and advance to the NCAA Tournament. Those will be Eastern's first neutral site games of the year after going 15-1 at home and 6-9 on the road this year. The Eagles were denied their first Big Sky road sweep of the season when they lost to NAU.
"We are the No. 2 seed, and if we won we would have been the No. 2 seed," said Hayford. "It would have been nice to hang a banner, but we are 21-10 and that's a great regular season. But now it's the postseason. My guess is we'll see a similar defense again and we're going to have to have every man step up and shoot the ball well."
The season-ending victory for NAU continued a season-long trend. The Lumberjacks beat EWU, North Dakota, Montana State and Portland State at home this season, but were 0-3 versus teams (Idaho State and Southern Utah) below them in the standings). Northern Arizona improved to 9-22 overall and finished 6-12 in the league.
Won-Lost Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 21-10 in their 34th season as a member of NCAA Division I and 13-5 in the league as they continue their 30th season as a member of the Big Sky. Eastern, which has won 10 of its last 13 games, is now 15-1 at home and 6-9 on the road. Eastern's five league losses were by a combined 34 points (6, 3, 1, 9, 15).
* The Lumberjacks, who rallied from a 25-point deficit but were edged 77-75 by Idaho on Thursday, finished the league season 6-12. Northern Arizona enters the league tournament 9-22 overall, having lost at EWU 84-62 on Jan. 19.
What It Means . . .
* Because North Dakota won earlier in the day, the EWU-NAU game was meaningless as far as seeding for the upcoming Big Sky Tournament. Earlier this season in the lone meeting between the two schools, North Dakota defeated EWU 95-86, thus UND had the tiebreaker advantage if the event of a first-place tie. Interestingly, Eastern's football team tied UND for the league title when both schools finished 8-0.
What's Next . . .
* The second-seeded Eagles will play in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament at 5:35 p.m. Pacific time on Thursday, March 9. Eastern will play the winner of the No. 7 versus No. 10 game in Tuesday's (March 7) first round. The 2017 Big Sky men's basketball championship will take place March 7 through 11 at the Reno Events Center in Reno, Nev. With Northern Colorado not eligible for the league tournament, seeds 6-11 play in three games on Tuesday, March 7, with those winners advancing to the quarterfinals on Thursday, March 9. The semifinals and championship game follow the next two days. Tickets and lodging information for the 2017 Big Sky Basketball Championships – including the women's tournament held concurrently -- is available at: http://RoadtoReno.com.
Keys to Game . . .
* After a furious rally from 25 down to nearly beat Idaho two days earlier, Northern Arizona came out on fire against the Eagles and surged to an early 34-14 lead. The Lumberjacks had runs of 9-0 and 8-0 en route to making 48 percent of their shots from the field in the first half, including 5-of-8 three-pointers. Meanwhile, Eastern's inside and drive games were shut down by NAU, and EWU attempted only four two-point shots in the first half. The Eagles missed them all and hit 6-of-21 3-point shots. Eastern trailed 37-20 at halftime.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior Bogdan Bliznyuk finished with 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists, making 9-of-24 field goals and 8-of-9 free throws. One game earlier in a 91-75 win over Southern Utah, Bliznyuk needed only 27 shots – making 8-of-11 field goals and 15-of-16 free throws – to score 32. That was his sixth performance of the season and of his career with at least 30 points
* Senior graduate transfer Jacob Wiley was scoreless in the first half and finished with a season-low five points on 2-of-6 shooting from the field. He also had 10 rebounds (his 12th double figure performance of the season), two blocked shots and a pair of assists. He entered the game leading the league in scoring (25.8), rebounding (10.4), blocks (2.5) and field goal percentage (.668) in league games only.
* Senior Felix Von Hofe finished with 15 points, making 5-of-13-pointers. He is now eighth in career 3-pointers in the Big Sky with a current total of 255, which is five from the school record of 260 set by his former Eastern teammate Tyler Harvey from 2013-15. Von Hofe's 89 3-pointers this season is sixth all-time at EWU.
Turning Point . . .
* The Eagles cut the lead to 10 at 51-41 with 9:52 on back-to-back 3-point field goals by Felix Von Hofe and Cody Benzel, but Eastern missed its next shot with a chance to cut the lead to seven. That started a stretch of five-straight misses for EWU, as the Eagles went 3:37 without scoring and NAU held a 15-point lead with 6 1/2 minutes to play.
Key Stats . . .
* For the first time in 10 games, Eastern was out-rebounded as NAU won the battle of the boards 46-29 – EWU's largest deficit of the season (Texas out-rebounded EWU by 13 at 44-31 on Nov. 17). Recently, the Eagles have been impressive rebounding the basketball, with a 12-3 record when they out-rebound opponents. Eastern has advantages in 13 of the last 17 games, but in its first 14 games, Eastern had a rebounding advantage just two times.
* Eastern scored just 20 points in the first half – a season low for the Eagles – and managed just a 34.5 percent shooting night overall and 32.4 percent from 3-point range (11-of-34). The Eagles entered the game ranked 25th in NCAA Division in field goal shooting (48.2 percent), 42nd in 3-point shooting (38.3 percent) and 42nd in scoring (79.7). It was Eastern's lowest shooting percentage of the league season, and second-lowest for the year after making only 32.8 percent at Northern Kentucky on Dec. 18.
Team Highlights . . .
* Bogdan Bliznyuk went over the 600-point mark for the season, and he and Jacob Wiley became the first pair of EWU teammates to achieve that feat in the same season. Bliznyuk (622) and Wiley (620) now rank seventh and eighth, respectively, on EWU's single season list.
* After ending the first half with a 6-3 run, Eastern scored the first six points of the second half to cut NAU's margin to 11. Those came on a 3-pointer by Felix Von Hofe and a 3-point by play Jacob Wiley -- his first points of the game. Eastern finished the game making 11 3-pointers, but it took 34 attempts to score those 33 points. Eastern was just 9-of-28 (32 percent) from inside the stripe.
Notables . . .
* Eastern entered the year picked to finish seventh by the coaches and fifth by the media in the preseason polls. Eastern lost a pair of first team All-Big Sky Conference and All-District performers to graduation – including the school's all-time leading scorer – but have reloaded to win 21 games and entered the NAU game leading the Big Sky in RPI at No. 132.
* Despite the loss to end a four-game winning streak versus NAU, Eastern has still won nine of the last 12. Eastern trails in the all-time series versus NAU 31-37 (9-23 in Flagstaff, 20-12 in Cheney, 2-2 neutral). The only meeting before Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I was an 84-80 NAU victory on Dec. 20, 1969, in Fresno, Calif. A year ago, Eastern won three games versus NAU, including a 74-52 in the first round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Eastern has won the last six meetings in Cheney dating back to a 73-69 loss on Jan. 15, 2010.
* Eastern's 80 victories is the best four-year stretch in the school's Division I history, and the third-best overall. Eastern won 83 games from 1975-1978 and 106 from 1943-46.
More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .
On NAU: "First you need to credit the other team – they had a great game plan. They looked at where our production was, and knew Wiley and Bliznyuk combined for 45 points per game and 80 percent of those are five feet from the basket. They loaded up in the key and dared us to shoot from the outside. We didn't have a good enough shooting night. It hurts – those guys don't want to miss those on purpose, but at the end of the day you are playing for a championship."
On Second Half: "They dared us to shoot outside and in the first half we went 6-of-21 from three and finished 11-of-34. We made an adjustment which at least got us more twos than threes in the second half. Our guys believed we would win and they have confidence in themselves. That's why they were taking those shots, we just weren't making them. Again, NAU was going to see what we could do from the outside and then they did a great job from the free throw line and didn't give us momentum."
On Staying in the Area In Lieu of Returning to Cheney: "We are doing it instead of taking multiple flights back and forth. All the players are great in their classes. We'll get rested and have three practices down here. We'll kind of let the sunshine heal our aches and pains, and get hungry for what we can do in Reno. We'll fly up to Reno on Tuesday and get used to being there, then look forward. But we'll chew on this for a few more hours and see what we need to do so we can learn from this."