Points off turnovers and some shaky shooting told the story.
Weber State scored 20 points of 13 miscues and used a late 13-2 run to beat the second-seeded Eastern Washington University men's basketball team 80-72 in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament Friday (March 10) at the Reno Events Center in Reno, Nevada.
Eastern's dynamic duo of junior Bogdan Bliznyuk and senior graduate transfer Jacob Wiley combined for 56 points in the loss to the third-seeded Wildcats. With a 22-11 record, Eastern expects to still receive a postseason invitation – most likely a repeat appearance in the College Basketball Invitational -- and will find out its fate on Sunday (March 12).
After EWU led most of the first half, the second half featured eight ties and seven lead changes. Eastern took its last lead of the game at the 5:54 mark, then Weber State scored five points off a pair of Eagle turnovers during the game-deciding 13-2 run. The Wildcats opened their biggest lead of the night at 74-65, then led by no less than five the rest of the way. After shooting at a 57 percent clip in the game midway through the second half, Eastern made only six of its last 21 shots, missing its last five.
"It's a tough one," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "You have to put the ball in the basket – that's the game of basketball. We just didn't get enough support around Jake and Bogdan. You win as a team and you lose as a team. We're 22-11 and had a second-place finish in a really tough conference. Anybody watching these games realizes just how strong the Big Sky was this year. Every game was a war. Two years ago we won 26 games, and that's the only year an Eastern team won more games than this (in NCAA Division I). I'm extremely proud of our team."
The Eagles are now 6-4 in nine semifinal appearances in the tournament, and are now 3-1 versus the Wildcats. The Eagles went on to win Big Sky titles in 2004 and 2015, but will have to wait until 2018 for its next opportunity.
With 32 points against Weber State, Bliznyuk now has 672 for the season. Wiley finished with 24 to give him 668. They are ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, in school history, with Tyler Harvey's 677 (2014) the next player to catch. Wiley also had four blocked shots, moving him into second in Big Sky Conference single season history with 93 – just two behind the Big Sky record of 95.
Won-Lost Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 22-11 in their 34th season as a member of NCAA Division I after finishing 13-5 in the league as they continue their 30th season as a member of the Big Sky. Eastern, which has won 11 of its last 15 games, is now 15-1 at home, 6-9 on the road and 1-1 on neutral courts. Eastern's five league losses were by a combined 34 points (6, 3, 1, 9, 15).
* Weber State is now 19-12, having won its last three games after a late-season four-game losing streak dropped the Wildcats from first to third in the league standings.
What It Means . . .
* Eastern was making its 15th Big Sky Conference Tournament appearance in 30 years as a member of the league in 2017, and has a record of 13-13 in its 26 games. The Eagles are 6-4 in the semifinals and 2-4 in the championship (also 1-0 in the first round and 4-5 in the quarterfinals).
* Eastern won Big Sky Conference Tournament championships and appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2015 & 2004. The Eagles have also advanced to the National Invitation Tournament in 2003 and the College Basketball Invitational in 2016. Eastern registered the school's first NCAA Division I postseason win with a 79-72 victory over Pepperdine in the first round of the CBI.
* Eastern head coach Jim Hayford has now coached in 10 Big Sky Conference Tournament games, with a record of 7-3 in four appearances. His 2014-15 squad won the title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament with a trio of victories in Missoula, Montana. Included was a come-from-behind 69-65 over the host Grizzlies in the championship game.
What's Next . . .
* The second-seeded Eagles will most likely make a repeat appearance in the College Basketball Invitational, with that announcement expected to come Sunday (March 12) evening. Weber State will advance to the Big Sky title game to face North Dakota. In Friday's other semifinal game, top-seeded North Dakota won 69-64 against No. 4 Idaho. The championship game is Saturday (March 11) at 5:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
Keys to Game . . .
* Although Eastern built a 12-point lead in the first half, Weber State used a 13-0 advantage in points off turnovers to take their first lead of the game early in the second half. After scoring five points off EWU turnovers in the game-deciding 13-2 run, the Wildcats finished with a 20-3 advantage in the game.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior Bogdan Bliznyuk made 11-of-20 shots from the field, 3-of-5 3-pointers and 7-of-8 free throws on his way to a 32-point night. He also had eight rebounds. He now has seven 30-point performances in his career (all this season), with 25 of at least 20 (18 this season). He entered the Weber State contest averaging 25.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in his last six games.
* Senior graduate transfer Jacob Wiley made 10-of-18 shots from the field and 4-of-6 free throws to finish with 24 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots. He now has 17 performances this season with at least 20 points, and he has had at least 27 points in eight of his last 17 games. For the season, he has scored in double figures in all but four of EWU's 33 games and has 11 double-doubles (8-3 record), with a total of 13 double-figure rebounding performances.
* Senior Felix Von Hofe scored just two points and remains eighth in career 3-pointers in the Big Sky with a current total of 257, which is three from the school record of 260 set by his former Eastern teammate Tyler Harvey from 2013-15. Von Hofe's 91 3-pointers this season are sixth all-time at EWU.
Turning Point . . .
* After a second half that featured eight ties and seven lead changes, Eastern took its last lead of the night with 5:54 left on a pair of free throws by Jacob Wiley. The Wildcats then went on a 13-2 run, including by a three-point play by Jeremy Senglin to give Weber State a 71-65 lead with 3:47 to play. Weber State eventually led 74-64 and EWU could come no closer than five the rest of the way.
Key Stats . . .
* Four Eastern players combined for a 1-of-12 shooting performance from 3-point range, as EWU finished just 5-of-18 (28 percent) from beyond the arc. The Eagles finished the game at 47 percent overall, compared to 50 percent for the Wildcats.
Team Highlights . . .
* Bogdan Bliznyuk and Jacob Wiley combined for all of EWU's points as the Eagles opened the game on a 14-2 run and held Weber State to just one field goal in the first six minutes. Despite Bliznyuk's 19 points in the half and EWU's 52 percent shooting from the field, Weber State made seven of its last eight shots and the game was tied at 34 at intermission.
* With four more blocked shots against Weber State, Jacob Wiley has increased his school record total to 93 for the season to shatter the previous record of 69 set by Venky Jois in 2015. He's also ranked second all-time in the league, just two from the record (95, Brian Qvale, Montana, 2010-11). His blocked shots total already ranks third on EWU's career leaders list. His average of 2.78 per game entering the WSU game is first in the league and eighth nationally.
Notables . . .
* Eastern has played the Wildcats in the Big Sky Tournament on six occasions, including a 3-1 record in semifinal matchups. Eastern won in the 1990 semis in Boise 83-67, won in the 2002 semis in Bozeman 62-57, lost in the 2003 championship game in Ogden 60-57, won in the 2004 semis in Cheney 72-53 and lost in the 2011 quarterfinals in Ogden 79-70.
* Eastern is now 23-48 all-time against Weber State, including a 16-17 home record after this season's 82-72 home victory. Eastern is just 5-30 all-time at Weber State, but won there 79-71 in the 2014-15 season to end the regular season. Earlier in '14-15, Eastern opened league play with an 84-78 home win over the Wildcats to snap a seven-game losing streak against WSU. Eastern had also lost the last five meetings at Reese Court prior to that 2015 victory, having not defeated the Wildcats at home since a 77-69 victory on Jan. 11, 2009.
* 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 22 games and enter the Weber State game leading the Big Sky in RPI at No. 142. The Eagles also boast the league's MVP in senior graduate Jacob Wiley and a second team All-Big Sky selection in Bogdan Bliznyuk.
* At 22-11 overall, the Eastern basketball program under head coach Jim Hayford has hit a threshold that has occurred just twice in Eastern's 34-year history in NCAA Division I. Since 1983-84, the only other times EWU has won 20 games came in 1985-86 (20-8) and 2014-15 (26-9). This year's team is just one of five in the school's 34-year NCAA Division I history to have at least 18, including three-straight under Hayford.
* Eastern's current total of 81 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. The Eagles have won 66 games in back-to-back-to-back seasons, which is also the best in EWU's DI history. Eastern won 80 games from 1945 to 1947 and 66 from 1976-78.
* With 102 career games (17th in school history), Bliznyuk is the 20th Eagle to join the 1,000-point club, currently ranking seventh with 1,399 points. The only player in school history with a triple-double, when Bliznyuk registers a double-double, good things usually happen for the Eagles. He now has six double-doubles in the 2016-17 season and 15 in his career. Eastern has won 10-straight games when he's had a double-double, and a record of 13-2 when he achieves that feat. The Eagles are 6-0 this season when he has a double-double, and one of the 13 career victories was the first triple-double in school history with 11 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists on Jan. 16, 2016.
More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .
On Postseason Opportunity: "We've won 22 games and I'm very confident to say we will play in the CBI. They extended an invitation again, but kind of the asterisk on that is who else won or lost and what else is going on. But I'm pretty confident this season will be rewarded with more play. We're a really good team."
On Differences in Game: "We outrebounded them and got really good production out of Bogdan and Jake. Luka gave us some nice minutes too. We surround them with some really good shooters and we just had a bad shooting night out of our studs. We were 1-of-12 from three with some players who are the reason we won 22 games. Put them all together and they shot about 45, 48 percent this season. That's too bad."
On Weber State Late Run: "It was a back-and-forth game the whole way, then we were empty on four possessions. We had two big turnovers and missed two really good looks. Weber executed great offense and scored and that's how they got separation. We weren't able to close the gap."
On Defense Against Wiley: "They were very physical with Jake. They went at him and that's why he had seven turnovers. We're not winning 22 games without Jake and Bogdan. We just needed to give them a little more support. Those two players were amazing."
On Eagle-Wildcat Matchup: "I'm really proud of our team and be a part of a game like that. There was outstanding sportsmanship and respect between the two teams. We have tremendous respect for Weber's program. When our staff took over six years ago, Weber State was the standard and what we wanted to be like. The last six games against them we've each won three, and they won the one that mattered today. We are trying to get there with them, and if we can do that, we're in a classy neighborhood because Weber is a classy program."
On First Half Tie: "We turned the ball over too much in the first half. Usually turnovers are an assist going the other way. That gave them some easier offense in transition. We went into the game knowing it was about if we can beat them on the boards and if they can get out in transition. From the 11 minute mark on, we played more at their pace and that was to their favor."
On Eagles in 2017: "We were different than every other Big Sky team. How many driving layups and post-up baskets and other two-pointers did Jake and Bogdan make? If you did a shot chart of all our baskets during the year, it would be a giant mass of baskets eight feet from the basket. The fact opponents knew it was coming and they couldn't stop them shows how outstanding Jake and Bogdan are. What a fun year. We have more basketball to play, but from day one this team was always headed into the same direction. These guys are amazing students – Jake and Bogdan are both 3.4, 3.5 students, and the whole team is everything good about getting to be a college basketball coach. I've been able to live a dream with this team this year."