Aiken has career day for Eagles in 82-79 win over Thunderbirds

Aiken has career day for Eagles in 82-79 win over Thunderbirds

In the absence of their leading scorer, the Eagles turned to a pair of redshirt freshmen to fill the void.

Kim Aiken Jr. had a career day and Tanner Groves made the first start of his Eastern career, helping the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball improve its home winning streak to four games with an 82-79 victory Saturday (Feb. 2) versus Southern Utah at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

The Eagles only led for 6:08 of the game, and used a pair of 16-2 runs to make comebacks in each half. Their final run was their best, as EWU out-scored the Thunderbirds 16-2 in a late four-minute stretch in which SUU missed five-straight shots. Eastern sank six of its last seven and rose above the .500 mark in the Big Sky Conference for the first time this season.

“It was a great home win — the environment was fun today,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans . “It’s huge to be 5-4, and being above .500 says a lot.”

Now 5-4 in the league and 7-13 overall, Aiken more than doubled his previous career high and finished with a monster game of 24 points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots and a pair of steals. Jacob Davison scored 21, Jesse Hunt 16 and Tyler Kidd 15 to contribute offensively while EWU played without its leading scorer, junior Mason Peatling .

“He stepped in and played terrific basketball,” said Legans of the 2017 graduate of East Valley High School in Redlands, Calif. “It’s been brewing – we have been able to see him in practice and he has a lot of confidence. But freshmen go through highs and lows.”

Peatling missed the game with an injury and, as a result, for the first time in EWU’s NCAA Division I history — and overall since Dec. 30, 1981 — two players from high schools in Spokane, Wash., started the game. Redshirt freshman Tanner Groves (Shadle Park HS) joined senior Cody Benzel (Ferris HS) in the starting lineup.

Groves hit an early 3-pointer, but EWU made just seven of its first 21 shots and fell behind 31-19 at the 5:57 mark. But four Eagles scored during a 16-2 run, and Eastern took a 35-33 lead just before intermission. Eastern’s defense held SUU without a field goal for 4:52 during that stretch, and EWU forced 13 Thunderbird turnovers in the first half. The game was tied at 37 at intermission.

Eastern fell behind by as many as seven in the second half and had to play catch-up again. Aiken scored 10 points in a 6 1/2 minute span to keep the Eagles close, but the Thunderbirds still led 68-64 at the 5:03 mark.

Then a 3-pointer by Aiken, a basket by Hunt and another bucket by Aiken gave the Eagles a hard-earned 71-68 lead with 3:10 remaining. The Eagles never trailed again, and completed what would become a 16-2 run to take a nine-point lead with 40 seconds to play. Aiken’s free throw with two seconds to play helped clinch the win.

Records . . .

* The Eagles are 7-13, and 5-4 in Big Sky Conference play. Eastern beat pre-season favorite Montana 78-71 on Jan. 10 and Montana State 85-81 on Jan. 19 in its two previous home games. The Eagles are now 6-3 at home this season and 1-10 on the road, with the lone victory away from home coming at Sacramento State 94-92 in overtime on Jan. 26.

* The Thunderbirds are now 4-6 in the Big Sky and 9-10 overall, and had picked up three road wins on the season, including a victory at Idaho State. Southern Utah entered the Eastern game with four players averaging between 9.1 and 13.7 points per game, led by 6-foot-8 guard/forward Cameron Oluyitan with a 13.7 average. He scored only six, but Brandon Better exploded for 35 versus the Eagles.

What’s Next . . .

* Eastern plays another home game on Monday (Feb. 4) when EWU hosts Northern Arizona at 6:05 p.m. at Reese Court. The Lumberjacks head into tonight’s (Feb. 2) game at Idaho 4-5 in the league and 6-13 on the season. Northern Arizona has a pair of rad wins, having upset 7-2 Weber State 90-82 in overtime on Jan. 5 in Ogden, Utah.

Top Performers . . .

* Redshirt freshman Kim Aiken Jr. scored a career-high 24 points, hitting 8-of-10 shots from the floor with four 3-pointers. He also had 11 rebounds for the first double-double of his career, four blocked shots and two steals. His previous high was 11 points versus Montana on Jan. 10, which was his lone game in double figures until the SUU game.

* Senior Jesse Hunt hit 5-of-11 shots with a pair of 3-pointers to finish with 16 points to go along with five rebounds and a team-high four assists. He has had 22 career double-figure scoring performances in his career to go along with 11 performances with 10 or more rebounds. He has six double-doubles on the season and seven in his career.

* Jacob Davison finished with 21 points, making 8-of-14 shots from the field and all three of his free throws. He also had five rebounds and a pair of assists. He’s scored at least 20 points in five Eastern games (six in his career), with 11 performances in double-digits (21 in his career).

* Junior guard Tyler Kidd had 15 points in the fifth start of his EWU career after coming off the bench in the first 12 games he played this season. He made all six of his free throws and had a pair of assists to go with three rebounds. He has now scored in double figures eight times, all coming in EWU’s last 10 games.

* Junior Mason Peatling did not play against SUU. He missed EWU’s first 10 games of the season with an injury, but had been EWU’s leading scorer in five of nine games since and has also led in rebounds four times. Eastern is now 1-9 without him and is 5-4 since. An honorable mention All-Big Sky selection a year ago, Peatling is averaging 15.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.7 blocks overall. He’s shooting at a 58.6 percent clip, making 7-of-13 3-point attempts (53.8 percent) and 20-of-30 free throws (66.7 percent). He now has 23 career games scoring in double figures, with seven rebounding in double figures and six double-doubles (one this season).

Key Stats . . .

* Eastern is now 7-0 this season when it makes at least 45 percent of its shots from the field (1-0 at 50 percent or better) and 0-13 when it doesn’t. The Eagles sank 47.4 percent from the field compared to 45.6 percent for the Thunderbirds. Both teams made 11 3-pointers, EWU had a 35-32 rebounding advantage and SUU finished with 16 turnovers to EWU’s 13 in the evenly-matched game. Eastern had a 30-20 advantage in points in the paint and 27-13 in bench points. Eastern has out-rebounded its last four opponents after having just two rebounding advantages in their first 16 games.

Notables . . .

* Redshirt freshman Tanner Groves made the first start of his career against Southern Utah, and marked the first time in Eastern’s NCAA Division I history (since 1983-84) that two players from high schools from Spokane have started the same game. Groves, a 2017 graduate of Shadle Park HS, was joined in the lineup by regular starter Cody Benzel , a 2014 graduate of Ferris HS. The last time it occurred came on Dec. 30, 1981, during an era from 1980-82 in which Don Garves (Shadle Park), Dave Henley (Shadle Park), Jerry Karstetter (Central Valley) and Mike Thacker (Central Valley) all played for Eastern. Garves and Henley both started that game, a 69-54 win over Northern Michigan.

* Senior guard Cody Benzel continues to climb Eastern’s career 3-pointers made list, ranking fifth in school history with 181. Benzel is now just one 3-pointer away from moving into a tie with Marc Axton on EWU’s all-time leaders list (184 from 2002-05). Senior teammate Ty Gibson is 11th with 134. Both of them have played in more than 100 games for the Eagles, with current totals of 121 (sixth in school history) and 116 (10th) games of experience, respectively. Jesse Hunt is right behind with 103 games played.

* Eastern is now 6-3 at home at Reese Court, and is 52-9 overall there in the last four-plus seasons (85 percent). In the previous four seasons, EWU has gone 46-6 at Reese Court, including an 11-1 mark last season and 15-1 record in 2016-17.

* The Eagles are now 12-5 all-time against Southern Utah (7-1 in Cheney, 4-4 in Cedar City, 1-0 on a neutral court), including an 82-70 victory over the Thunderbirds on March 9, 2018, in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Reno, Nevada. Earlier in the year, EWU had its eight-game winning streak over SUU snapped with a 66-62 overtime loss on Jan. 20, 2018, in Cedar City, Utah. The Eagles have triumphed in the last seven home meetings since losing the first game in Cheney in the series by a 70-68 score on Dec. 21, 1993. The Thunderbirds joined the Big Sky in the 2012-13 season and EWU is 11-2 versus them since then.

More Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .

On Aiken: “I’m excited for him – he followed the game plan and was unbelievable. He kept going and playing – shooting and rebounding. He did everything he possibly could. And to hold (Southern Utah’s) Andre Adams to four points big-time. That is bigger than the 24 points and 11 rebounds.”