It wasn’t the signature victory the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team had hoped for, but it was certainly mission accomplished for EWU.
The Eagles led twice in the first half, then kept the game close after halftime before falling to 15th-ranked Connecticut Saturday (Dec. 28) in front of 9,274 fans at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn., to wrap-up the non-conference portion of the EWU schedule.
“It was a good day for us even though we didn’t get the win,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. “I’m really pleased with how our team played.”
The Huskies improved to 11-1, while the Eagles enter Big Sky Conference play with a 5-6 record. The Eagles spent the week on the East Coast after a 92-70 loss to Seton Hall last Sunday (Dec. 22) in which Eastern trailed by only two at halftime. Eastern opens league play on the road at Weber State (Jan. 2) and Idaho State (Jan. 4) before hosting Montana (Jan. 9) and Montana State (Jan. 11).
“We are going to get there, and today made us a better team,” said Hayford. “They couldn’t have fit another person in the building here and we played a great game and represented Eastern Washington well. We knew this was going to be the final test of our non-conference season, and knew what we did well against them we would be able to do well in the Big Sky. And if we had deficiencies they were going to show us.”
True freshman Ognjen Miljkovic came off the bench to score a career high 15 points for the Eagles, and starting sophomore guard Tyler Harvey hit his season average with 19 points. Junior point guard Drew Brandon chipped in 13 points, four rebounds and four assists. Junior Parker Kelly had eight points in the second half and 10 in the game.
“We’re counting on a freshman for offense, and O.G. (Miljkovic) came here and scored 15 very solid points,” praised Hayford. “I think this gives him some confidence going into conference play.”
The Huskies had five players in double figures, including Shabazz Napier who had 15 points and nine assists. Connecticut held Eastern to 37 percent shooting from the field, and in one stretch of 9:51 spanning halftime, limited the Eagles to only six points.
“To beat a team like UConn we are going to have to shoot the ball better than we did,” said Hayford. “We got some really good looks that we missed, and hopefully our guys are going to make those in the Big Sky. We didn’t shoot well enough, but we rebounded and played pretty good defense.”
Eastern sank 9-of-28 3-point attempts for 32 percent. The Huskies made 46 percent of their shots, but were just 3-of-10 from the 3-point stripe. The Eagles were out-scored 40-20 inside the paint and 22-7 in points off turnovers.
Connecticut also made 25-of-27 free throws, compared to just 6-of-7 for the Eagles. Eastern was out-rebounded by just a 38-35 margin, and had 15 turnovers compared to 11 for UConn.
“They are a good team,” added Hayford. “Their guards are hard to keep in front of you, but I thought we did a good job with that. And they shot free throws like nobody’s business – 25-of-27 – that was the separation in the score right there.”
Eastern took early leads of 11-8 and 21-20 in a first half that featured four lead changes and six ties. A late surge gave the Huskies a 30-23 lead at halftime.
UConn bumped the lead to double digits in the second half, but a 4-0 run helped Eastern pull within six at 48-42 with 9:28 left on a basket by Harvey on an assist from Brandon.
But like they did the entire game, the Huskies answered, and used a 10-3 run to regain a 13-point advantage. UConn led by as many as 19 points the rest of the way.
The Eagles are now 1-19 versus nationally-ranked teams, with the last meeting coming two years ago when EWU narrowly lost 77-69 on Nov. 11, 2011, to a Gonzaga team ranked 23rd in both the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today preseason coaches' polls. It was the head coaching debut at Eastern for Hayford.
Connecticut entered Saturday’s game ranked 15th in the Associated Press poll and the USA Today Coaches poll following a road split on the West Coast. The Huskies won at Washington 82-70 on Dec. 22 after losing its first game of the season four days earlier to Stanford 53-51. UConn made just 32 percent of its shots against the Cardinal but made 55 percent versus the Huskies.
Connecticut finished 20-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big East Conference last season, while Seton Hall was 15-18 overall and 3-15 in the league. However, Seton Hall and six other teams in the so-called “Catholic 7” broke off from the league, but will retain the Big East tag. The remaining Big East teams, plus others in the expanded conference, will now be named the American Athletic Conference.
The storied UConn program has won three NCAA Tournament Championships (1999, 2004 and 2011). The Huskies have participated in four NCAA Final Fours and appeared in the NCAA tournament 31 times. The Eagles had two common opponents -- Eastern lost to Washington 92-80 on Nov. 17 and beat Boston University 80-68 on Nov. 22, while UConn has defeated both by scores of 82-70 and 77-60, respectively.
Hayford’s team used its final game to prepare the Eagles for the rigors of the Big Sky Conference. In Eastern’s first three Big Sky games, one is against pre-season favorite Weber State and one is versus Montana, which is picked to finish second by the media and third by the coaches. The Eagles were picked to finish fifth by the coaches and sixth by the media.
“As we enter Big Sky play it is going to be tough,” he said. “We just need to keep getting better. It is a long season. This team has the potential, especially because we have no seniors, to be playing as good as anybody in the Big Sky in March. We need to make sure we get enough wins.”