The first time Eastern Washington and Southern Utah met on the basketball court in a Big Sky Conference game the Eagles got pushed around – and lost 69-55 in Cedar City.
Last Saturday, when pushed, Eastern pushed back and it helped earn them a rugged 86-72 victory at Reese Court. The win, the Eagles’ second straight, improved their BSC record to 6-9 and 8-17 overall. Southern Utah slipped to 8-8 in the league and 10-15 on the season.
The outcome, combined with the Eagles’ 89-80 loss at Portland State Monday (see separate story) further confused the conference postseason picture with just a handful of games remaining.
Eastern jumps out of league play this week hosting a Saturday ESPN BracketBusters game at Reese Court at 1:05 p.m. against football rival Sam Houston, 7-6 in the Southland Conference and 14-11 overall.
There seemed to be plenty of football-style contact for the Eagles in Saturday afternoon’s match-up with the Thunderbirds. And that is by design.
“I thought the first time we played them our guys said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that to me,’ and today they said, ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me,’” EWU head coach Jim Hayford said.
SUU’s Damon Heuir pushed back a little too hard – perhaps in frustration from being held to just two points in his 18 minutes of playing time – and was ejected after incurring his second technical foul with 13:15 remaining.
Heuir and Eastern’s Collin Chiverton, also tagged with a “T” but allowed to stay in the game, were involved in a shoving incident. Heuir scored 17 points in 30 minutes in the first meeting between the two teams. “A lot of that is the difference in senior Jeff Forbes being out here,” Hayford said. “He just did a really, really good job and obviously Heuir got frustrated and they crumbled.”
“You watch tape and every game is like that; credit their coaches because it gives them an edge,” Hayford said. “You better be tough and if you’re not tough Southern Utah is going to beat you.”
Eastern’s win had other key components.
The Eagles hit a season-best 53.7 percent of their shots from the field for a season high 86 points. The Thunderbirds, meanwhile, made only 32.8 percent of their shots from the field.
Chiverton led the Eagles with 18 points in just 10 minutes of play. Sophomores Parker Kelly had 15 and Martin Seiferth finished with his second double-double of the season with 13 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots. Redshirt freshman Tyler Harvey added 11 points in 14 minutes of action, including the final six of the game.
Eastern also frustrated SUU in the paint. The Eagles set a pair of records against the Thunderbirds for blocked shots. Venky Jois had five, giving him 55 for the season and broke the school record of 51 set by Paul Butorac in 2006. Seiferth now has 46 blocks this season, third-best all-time.
The Eagles finished with 10 as a team for 138 on the season. That broke the school record of 130 set in 2005-06. Jois’s effort came in his first game back after suffering an ankle injury against Montana State, Jan. 31.
Eastern had the rebounding edge 41-40 over a SUU team ranked second in the league in rebounding margin, a plus 3.9 per game. “We actually did a better job on the boards because some of those offensive rebounds they had were off of blocked shots,” Hayford said.
Eastern led 39-31 at the half and would push the margin to as high as 17 on a Forbes’ basket with 12:53 to play. Twice the Thunderbirds would make runs to cut it to single digits. The last time came with 3:44 remaining as SUU’s A.J. Hess sunk all three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point try to make it a 72-63 contest.
The Eagles finished outscoring the T-Birds 14-9 from there on out, including Harvey’s six in a row to finish it.
Hayford’s gameplan was to take advantage of a Thunderbird team that, while admittedly tough, came into the game somewhat tired.
“We wanted to get transition,” Hayford explained. “We hadn’t played in seven days, they were the road team and had played on Thursday night so we said let’s push it, let’s push it, let’s keep ‘em on their heels and make them guard the dribble because they foul a lot.”
Jackson Stevenett led all scorers in the game with 24 points. Hess was the only other SUU player in double figures with 20.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.