Aiken’s buzzer-beater gives Eagles 68-66 senior day victory

Aiken’s buzzer-beater gives Eagles 68-66 senior day victory

Leave it to a redshirt freshman and a sophomore to save Senior Day.

Freshman Kim Aiken Jr. hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to salvage EWU’s final homestand of the season with a victory as Eastern Washington defeated Portland State 68-66 in a battle for fifth place in the Big Sky Conference on Saturday (March 2) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

Aiken, who led the Eagles with 19 points, hit his game-winner on a drive and pass by sophomore Jack Perry , just nine seconds after PSU took the lead with its own 3-pointer. Eastern made its final three shots of the game after having a pair of 0-of-8 stretches in the second half. Portland State led for 30:16 of the game, and EWU led for just 3:43. It was tied for the other 6:01.

“You have to let players make plays,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans . “It was a high ball screen and Jack made an incredible play to get the ball to Kim. It’s something we work on a lot just playing. He came in and made the great play – he had a layup that would have been contested, but he found Kim for the open three. It was a great scene to see a sophomore hit a freshman for the game-winner to send our seniors out as winners on Senior Day.”

The thrilling win was the final regular home game of the season for EWU and ended PSU’s six-game winning streak. It also solidified EWU’s chances at a first-round bye in the upcoming Big Sky Conference Tournament, with EWU now 10-8 in the league and PSU 9-9 with two games to play.

Seniors Jesse Hunt , Ty Gibson and Cody Benzel were honored in pre-game ceremonies for their more than 100-game careers. That trio has a combined 367 games played in their careers, and departing junior Joshua Thomas was also honored Saturday.

Aiken was one of four Eagles to score in double figures, including Hunt with his 10th double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Junior Tyler Kidd had 13 and Mason Peatling added 14 with six rebounds.

Eastern has now won nine of its last 14 games in league play, and is 11-8 since starting the season 1-9. Eastern is now 10-4 at Reese Court where the Eagles had a seven-game winning streak come to an end with a 59-56 setback to Sacramento State in EWU’s last outing on Feb. 28.

But Eastern successfully avenged a 78-65 loss suffered Jan. 24 at Portland State, and now heads for games at Idaho State and Weber State to close out the season. Eastern is 2-13 on opponent home courts, including an 86-73 romp on Feb. 23 at Northern Arizona.

“It gives us confidence because we beat the hottest team in the league,” said Legans. “They were playing good basketball and we held them to a pretty decent shooting percentage. We did everything we were supposed to do.”

Eastern played its fifth-straight game without Jacob Davison , who scored 41 points in an 82-64 home win over NAU on Feb. 4. The Eagles are 3-2 in those five games.

The Eagles got off to a slow start, and six-straight made field goal attempts by the Vikings helped them open a 22-8 lead with a 10-0 run. But EWU fought back, and used a pair of 5-0 runs and two of 4-0 to regain a 35-34 lead late in the half on a floater by Aiken.

The Eagles trailed at halftime 35-34, but made nine of their last 14 shots after starting 3-of-12. Eastern out-shot PSU 46 percent to 39 percent in the opening 20 minutes, with EWU holding the Vikings to a 1-of-8 shooting stretch during its comeback.

A stretch of eight-straight misses for the Eagles and six-straight makes by PSU helped the Vikings go on a 12-0 run in the second half and take a 57-47 lead at the 11:17 mark. But Eastern fought back again, and eventually used runs of 8-0 and 6-0 to regain the lead with 6:38 left.

However, the Eagles missed eight-straight shots again, and fell behind. But a rebound basket by Aiken with 1:28 left and Kidd’s layup with 31 ticks remaining helped set the stage for Aiken’s buzzer beater.

Records . . .

* The Eagles are now 12-17 overall, and 10-8 in Big Sky Conference play, and solidified fifth place tie in the league standings pending outcomes later Saturday. The Eagles are 10-4 at home this season and 2-13 on the road.

* Portland State is now 14-15 on the season and 9-9 in league play. Eastern avenged a 78-65 loss suffered Jan. 24 at Portland State. That was part of a three-game winning streak by the Vikings, who followed that by losing three in a row. However, PSU’s 67-65 victory over Idaho on Thursday extended its winning streak to six games, and the Vikings hadn’t lost since falling Feb. 11 at Sacramento State by a 78-67 score.

* Montana entered the day in sole possession of first in the league standings at 13-3, followed closely by Northern Colorado at 13-4. The Grizzlies and Bears are followed by Weber State (10-7), Montana State (10-7 after an 84-73 win over Northern Arizona Saturday afternoon), EWU (10-8), Southern Utah (9-8), Portland State (9-9), Northern Arizona (7-11), Sacramento State (6-10), Idaho State (5-11) and Idaho (1-16).

What’s Next . . .

* Eastern closes the regular season at Idaho State on March 7 and Weber State on March 9 to end the regular season. Staying at the top of the league standings is important because the top five teams in the league gain a first-round bye in the Big Sky Conference Tournament March 13-16 in Boise, Idaho.

Top Performers . . .

* Redshirt freshman Kim Aiken Jr. had a team-high 19 points, making 7-of-12 shots overall, 3-of-7 from the 3-point arc and 2-of-3 from the free throw line. He also finished with nine rebounds. He has five double-figure scoring performances this season and two with at least 10 rebounds.

* Senior Jesse Hunt had yet another double-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds and a team-high four assists. He now has 29 career double-figure scoring performances in his career to go along with 15 performances with 10 or more rebounds. He has 10 double-doubles on the season and 12 in his career.

* Junior Mason Peatling hit 5-of-7 shots from the floor and all four of his free throws to finish with 14 points to go along with six rebounds. An honorable mention All-Big Sky selection a year ago, he has 27 career games scoring in double figures, with nine rebounding in double figures. He has two double-doubles this season and eight in his career.

* Junior guard Tyler Kidd chipped in 13 points. He has scored in double figures 14 times, all coming in EWU’s last 19 games.

* Senior Ty Gibson chipped in seven points with a pair of 3-pointers and had three assists in his final appearance at Reese Court. Sophomore Jack Perry had four assists and three points in 23 minutes of action.

* Sophomore Jacob Davison has not played since suffering an ankle injury versus Northern Colorado on Feb. 16. Before scoring 13 against the Bears, he had scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven games, and eight total this season (nine in his career). He’s had 15 performances in double-digits (25 in his career).

Key Stats . . .

* The Eagles suffered through a 3-of-12 shooting start and two second-half streaks of eight misses in a row, but still managed to finish at 38.3 percent for the game. The Eagles were just 6-of-26 from the 3-point line for 23.1 percent, but sank 16-of-18 free throws for their second-best free throw percentage of the season at 88.9 percent. EWU is now 10-1 this season when it makes at least 45 percent of its shots from the field (3-0 at 50 percent or better) and 2-16 when it doesn’t.

* Defensively, Eastern held PSU to 2-of-10 shooting in the last 7:33 of the game after holding its last two opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent or less from the 3-point stripe. Sac State sank 38.8 and 35.0 percent, respectively, a week after NAU was held to 33.3 percent overall and 12.5 percent from the arc. Portland State finished at 41.7 percent, including 9-of-24 3-point attempts for 37.5 percent.

* EWU had a 39-36 rebounding advantage and has now out-rebounded 10 of its last 13 opponents after having advantages in just two of its first 16 games. The Eagles are 9-3 when they out-rebound opponents and 3-14 when having less or tied.

Notables . . .

* Three Eastern seniors were honored Saturday (March 2) in pre-game ceremonies, and that trio of Cody Benzel , Ty Gibson and Jesse Hunt have combined for 367 games played in their careers. Benzel has played in 130 to pass Felix Von Hofe for second in school history and Gibson has 125 to pass Sir Washington for fifth. Jesse Hunt is right behind with 112 games played, needing just three to move into the top 12 in school history. Benzel also is in sole possession of fourth in school history with 187 3-pointers made in his career, and Gibson is 10th with 149. Eastern also honored a fourth player on Saturday — 2016 Central Valley High School (Spokane) graduate Joshua Thomas who will depart after three seasons in the program. He has a 3.98 grade point average as a visual communications design major at Eastern, joining the other three with some impressive academic accomplishments. Gibson and Hunt will both become four-time members of the Big Sky Conference All-Academic team, and Benzel was honored a year ago. Gibson has a 3.99 GPA as an accounting major, and Hunt was an Academic All-America nominee and has a 3.57 grade point average in business management. Benzel has a double major in marketing and finance.

* Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are now 24-24 versus Portland State. All of the meetings have come since the 1996-97 school year when PSU joined the Big Sky Conference, and Eastern is 16-8 in Cheney and 7-15 against PSU in Portland (1-1 on neutral courts) since then. The Vikings have a 27-25 edge in the overall series. Eastern is 2-1 against PSU in the Big Sky Tournament, winning 78-72 in the quarterfinals in 2018 in Reno, 81-75 in the 2006 quarterfinals in Cheney and losing 80-74 in the 1999 quarterfinals in Ogden, Utah.

* Eastern is now 10-4 at home at Reese Court this season, and is 56-10 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.

More Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .

On Jack Perry : “We are a player’s program, and guys are getting better throughout the season Jack has had a solid year, but he’s hit some speed bumps during the year. But he did well today against a team that pressures, which has been his Achilles heel this season.”

On Playing Tough: “You have to do the tough things – you have to get the rebounds and play defense. We were excited how we followed that game plan. We didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line, but we got to the free throw line and we shot them well. It showed our team that we can play at a snail’s pace offensively, and if you follow the defensive game plan and do what you are supposed to do, you can win these games. I was more than excited for the team in being able to see how well they responded to our loss to Sacramento State.”

On Balance in League: “We can win or lose to anybody. We beat the best team in the league and we lost to the worst team in the league. We have to make sure we’re playing good basketball and we are playing with confidence in our next two games. No matter where we are seeded, any team in this league can win the Big Sky Tournament as long as you’re playing hard, smart, with passion and with confidence. It’s a tale of Jekyll and Hyde for us, and it’s our job as coaches to get these players ready to go. Injuries have a little bit to do with it, but we have to play next-man-up. Kim Aiken was the next-man up and is playing on the wing for us, and confidence is a must. We got a little bit lost against Sacramento State, but with character and leadership we got it turned around. We beat the hottest team in the league.”