The Eagles battled hard for a second-half lead, but North Dakota quickly snatched it away.
Eastern Washington University used a 9-0 run to take a 45-44 lead with 12:30 play, but North Dakota responded with a 19-4 run and pulled away for a 73-61 Big Sky Conference men’s basketball victory Thursday (Jan. 30) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
A nearly six minute scoreless stretch was the deciding factor in UND’s run, just after Eastern had rallied from a six-point halftime deficit. The Eagles had 16 turnovers and made only 37.7 percent of their shots from the field.
“I think all of our guys understand that we are competing,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. “North Dakota is a team with seven seniors and they have high goals this year. They came in here and were like, ‘whatever it takes, we are ready to go, compete, and fight.’
“I think our guys are doing that,” he continued. “I think we did that to wrestle the lead back, but we are not doing it yet for 40 minutes, and that is part of our development and maturity process.”
Three players scored in double figures for Eastern, including a double-double by point guard Drew Brandon with 11 points, 13 rebounds and three assists. Sophomore Venky Jois added 16 points, five boards and a pair of blocked shots, and freshman Ognjen Miljkovic added 14 points and seven boards after scoring 32 three days earlier at Portland State.
The game matched the top two individual scorers in the league, with North Dakota’s Troy Huff owning a 19.9 average entering the game to rank second behind the 20.0 average of EWU Tyler Harvey. Huff finished with 15 while Harvey had just seven on 3-of-12 shooting from the field. Harvey’s string of 23-straight games scoring in double figures came to an end.
North Dakota made 46.7 percent of its shots, but were just 5-of-20 from 3-point range. In the second half, UND made only 1-of-10 treys and 43.8 percent overall.
“I thought defensively we did a much better job,” Hayford said. “If you take away those four or five baskets at the end of the second half, I think our defense was good enough to win it. We attacked the rim, but they did a good job of guarding the rim and blocking shots, so credit to them.”
Eastern is now 3-6 in the Big Sky and 8-12 overall, and lost for the first time in four league games at home. Overall, the Eagles are 0-10 on opponent home courts, 6-2 at home and 2-0 on neutral courts.
North Dakota improved its winning streak to four games, and is now 6-3 in league play and 9-10 on the season. UND was picked to finish second by the coaches and third by the media in the preseasons polls.
The Eagles now play Northern Colorado on Saturday (Feb. 1) at 2:05 p.m. in a game televised live regionally on SWX., and also carried live on ESPN 700-AM and www.watchbigsky.com. After falling 80-57 at Portland State on Thursday, the Bears are now 7-2 and fell out of first place in the Big Sky. The Bears are 13-5 on the season, and were ranked 13th in this week’s Mid-Major top 25 poll. They were picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky by both the coaches and media, just ahead of the Eagles.
Eastern jumped out to an early 7-2 lead with Miljkovic scoring five early points. The Eagles led 18-17 when UND went on an 8-0 run to take a seven-point advantage. North Dakota made 10 of its last 14 shots in the half and led by as many as eight in the first half and 37-31 at intermission.
Brandon had nine points and eight rebounds at halftime, but EWU was guilty of 10 turnovers. North Dakota out-shot EWU 50 percent to 41 percent in the opening 20 minutes.
Eastern held UND without scoring for 4:33 during a 9-0 EWU -- fueled by four points by Jois – which gave EWU a 45-44 lead with 12:30 remaining. But EWU then went 5:51 without a point, and the resulting 10-0 run gave UND a 57-47 lead at the 5:59 mark. North Dakota led by as many as 15 in the final minutes as UND made 11 of their last 17 shots in the game, while EWU at one point down the stretch missed 11 of 14 shots.
“Instead of us playing in a grind-it-out, one-possession game in the last four minutes, we had those empty trips where they scored on the other end,” Hayford added. “That is how they got separation, and that is how this close game turned into a 12-point loss.”
Northern Colorado owned a three-game winning streak heading into the Portland State game. A year ago in EWU’s final homestand of the season, Eastern was swept by UND and UNC, falling 88-80 in overtime to Northern Colorado on Feb. 28 and 78-74 to North Dakota two days later. A long 3-pointer by the Bears helped send that game into overtime, and a deflected shot that went in was the big basket down the stretch for North Dakota.
This week’s games feature the top three scoring teams in the league this season. Entering Thursday, Northern Colorado led the way with a 75.4 average, with EWU at 74.7 and North Dakota at 74.0.
Eastern’s Martin Seiferth and/or Venky Jois could both establish a new record for career blocked shots on Saturday. Seiferth’s 96 blocks ranks second in school history, only three behind the school record of 99 (Paul Butorac 2004-07). Jois is right behind with 94.