On a day when the offense struggled against a smothering man-on-man Idaho State defense, it was a clutch defensive stop of their own that saved the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team from a devastating loss.
Freshman European import Thomas Reuter came up with a huge block on one end and then converted a pair of free throws on the other to secure a 57-54 Big Sky Conference win over the Bengals Saturday afternoon at Reese Court.
The win evened the Eagles’ conference record at 1-1 following a 74-53 loss to Weber State last Thursday.
And it kept Eastern, 3-9 overall, from falling into a hole that might have been very difficult to climb out of come conference tournament time had they lost twice at home.
Following a turnover in the final 11 seconds by Justin Crosgile – this coming after Crosgile had stolen the ball on consecutive ISU possessions earlier – Reuter found himself trying to defends a 3-man Bengal breakout with Eastern leading just 55-54.
The Breckerfeld, Germany native first feared a pass but then realized Andre Hatchett was headed to the rim for a likely layup with just seven seconds to play. Reuter converged as Hatchett went to the basket, provided the perfect block and was fouled as he grabbed the rebound and began to move up the court.
“They made a great steal when we were trying to call timeout – give them credit, they made (what could have been) a winning play,” Eastern head coach Jim Hayford said. “Fortunately, Thomas made a big block, I don’t know if he will make a bigger block in his career.”
The win snapped a four-game EWU losing streak, but more importantly gave the Eagles a shot of confidence going into the Christmas break.
“To be on this side of a close win will go a long way for our guys; it was a much-needed win,” Hayford said. “I am really happy our guys can take this win into the break.”
Eastern led by as many as 13 points in the first half on a Daniel Hill basket, and 29-22 at the half, but Idaho State (0-2, 1-9) began a comeback that delivered them the lead 40-39 with 10 minutes, 48 second remaining. It’s a lead they would expand to 5 points with 6:25 to play.
But the first of a pair of 3-point shots from Jeffrey Forbes with 5:28 remaining ignited runs of 8-0 and 13-4, capped by the second bomb from the left corner by Forbes that put the Eagles up 54-50, with 1:55 on the clock.
“I gave him a big hug after the last one,” Hayford said of Forbes. “That’s what you need your veteran players to do, step up.”
ISU continued to battle, closing it to 55-54 on Melvin Morgan’s layup with 38 seconds to go. Some full court pressure by the Bengals in the final half-minute forced Crosgile to cough up the ball before the Eagles could call timeout. That set up Reuter’s heroics where his two pressure free throws, two of his eventual three points in 12 minutes of play, provided the final margin.
Another freshman, Australian Venky Jois, led Eastern with 13 points and 12 rebounds. It was his pair of free throws – his only points of the second half – with 3:52 to play that tied the game at 46-46. Jois was the only Eagle in double-figures. Martin Seifert and Forbes each had nine points while Crosgile and Hill pitched in with eight.
Eastern’s 46 percent shooting in the first half fell to a shade above 31 percent in the last 20 minutes. It was their free throw shooting that saved the Eagles, improving from hitting 1-of-5 – just 20 percent – early to knock down 10-of-15 for 66 percent.
Eastern has won the last 11 meetings versus ISU in Cheney, including their 81-75 Big Sky quarterfinal playoff victory this past March. Morgan led all scorers in the game with 14 while Preh Ayibakuro added 10.
Thursday night, Weber (2-0, 5-3) led 11-0 early and was never threatened as the Eagles, behind the 21 points from Jois, never got closer than 8 points. Crosgile had 11, the only other EWU played in double-digits. Eastern shot just 34 percent on the night. Jordan Richardson’s 15 and Kyle Tresnak’s 14 points paced the Wildcats.
If there was a bright spot it was Eastern’s ball handling as they committed just eight turnovers. “With the pressure, we did really well taking care of the ball,” Hayford said.
Eastern takes an extended break for the holidays, and won’t play again until visiting Big Sky Conference favorite Montana on Jan. 3 in Missoula. Two days later, Jan. 5 the Eagles play at Montana State and expect to have last year’s leading scorer Collin Chiverton back after an extended leave because of the death of his mother and then a close friend.
Eastern doesn’t play at Reese Court again until Northern Arizona visits Jan. 10.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.