CHENEY, Wash.- Getting No. 20 – and even No. 15 – was pretty special for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team.
The Eagles achieved more milestones on Senior Day at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash., registering an 89-77 victory over Idaho State Saturday (Feb. 25) in the final regular season home game for a trio of Eagle seniors. As a result of the win, the Eagles secured a first-round bye in the upcoming Big Sky Conference Tournament.
Felix Von Hofe, Eastern's all-time winningest NCAA Division I player with 79 victories in four seasons, was among the three players to be honored in pre-game ceremonies. The others were senior graduate transfer and Big Sky Most Valuable Player candidate Jacob Wiley and Julian Harrell, who played just two games this season because of a shoulder injury requiring surgery.
Wiley poured in 11 of EWU's first 13 points to help Eastern jump out to a 13-3 lead, and he finished with 19 in the first half and 38 in the game, to go along with a game-high 15 rebounds. He and Bogdan Bliznyuk combined for 62 of EWU's points, with Bliznyuk finishing with 24. Bliznyuk had 10 rebounds, the 10th-straight game EWU has won when he's had a double-double.
"They guarded us outside, which gave just enough space for Bogdan and Jake to do what they do inside," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. "They were really good, and we rode them to another win."
Von Hofe added 14 with a pair of 3-pointers, giving him 243 in his career to rank 10th in Big Sky history and just 17 from the school record. He is also just five points shy of becoming the 20th player in school history to hit the 1,000-point mark.
Eastern had advantages in most statistical categories, but made only 6-of-27 3-pointers for 22.2 percent. Eastern made 22-of-30 shots inside the 3-point arc for 73.3 percent.
"If we play another zone team this week on the road, in Reno or elsewhere in the postseason, we are going to have to shoot the ball a whole lot better than we did tonight," said Hayford. "And I know we can. At the end of the day it was a journeyman win on a bad shooting night. We'll take win No. 20."
With 20 victories, the Eagles hit a threshold that has occurred just twice since in Eastern's history in NCAA Division I. Since 1983-84, the only times that has occurred came in 1985-86 (20-8) and 2014-15 (26-9). This year's team is just one of five in the school's 34-year NCAA Division I history to have at least 18, including three-straight under Hayford.
Eastern closed the regular season with a 15-1 home record, tying the single season record of 15 set by the 1985-86 team. It was also accomplished two other times in EWU's NAIA era.
Eastern's 79 victories is the best four-year stretch in the school's Division I history, and the third-best overall. Eastern won 83 games from 1975-1978 and 106 from 1943-46.
Won-Lost Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 20-9 in their 34th season as a member of NCAA Division I and 12-4 in the league as they continue their 30th season as a member of the Big Sky. Eastern, which has won nine of its last 11 games, and is now 15-1 at home and 5-8 on the road. Eastern's four league losses have been by a combined 19 points (6, 3, 1. 9).
* Eastern was coming off one of the biggest wins in program history, defeating Weber State 82-72 Thursday (Feb. 23) to help forge a second-place tie with the Wildcats in the Big Sky Conference standings. Weber State is the defending regular season and tournament champions, and were picked to repeat this year. Eastern was selected seventh by the coaches and fifth by the media in the preseason rankings.
* Idaho State, which lost at Idaho 69-61 on Thursday, fell to 3-13 in the league and 6-23 overall. It was the sixth-straight loss for ISU, which hasn't won since beating Southern Utah 94-68. A year ago, the Bengals spoiled EWU's Senior Day with a 75-71 victory over the Eagles.
What It Means . . .
* Eastern, currently second in the Big Sky standings, can now finish no worse than 12-6 in the league, meaning they've clinched a first-round bye in the postseason tourney. With six teams entering action with six losses or less, either Montana or Montana State will have a seventh after they meet later on Feb. 25 in Bozeman. The 2017 Big Sky men's basketball championship will take place March 7 through 11 at the Reno Events Center in Reno, Nev. With Northern Colorado not eligible for the league tournament, seeds 6-11 play in three games on Tuesday, March 7, with those winners advancing to the quarterfinals on Thursday, March 9. The semifinals and championship game follow the next two days.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern closes out the regular season at Southern Utah (March 2) and Northern Arizona (March 4). Combined with Idaho State, those three teams entered action Saturday with a combined 11-34 record in the Big Sky and 18-65 overall. Eastern has more overall victories and more conference wins than those three teams put together. The top five teams secure first-round byes in the Big Sky Conference Tournament March 7-11 to Reno, Nevada.
Keys to Game . . .
* .The dynamic duo of Jacob Wiley and Bogdan Bliznyuk combined for 62 points – the second-most points they've combined for this season. It was the third time this season they've combined for at least 50 and 14th with at least 40. They were well behind the amazing 90 they scored when each equaled the school record of 45 on Feb. 4 in a triple-overtime victory over Portland State. Wiley entered the ISU game with a 20.0 average to rank fifth in the Big Sky and 35th in NCAA Division I, and Bliznyuk entered averaging 19.0 to rank seventh in the league and 54th nationally.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior Bogdan Bliznyuk had his sixth double-double of the season and 15th in his career with 24 points and 10 rebounds. He made 8-of-12 shots from the field with a pair of 3-pointers, and also made 6-of-7 free throws. Eastern has now won 10-straight games when he's had a double-double.
* Senior graduate transfer Jacob Wiley poured in 38 points on 13-of-16 shooting from the field and 12-of-14 from the line. He had 15 rebounds for his second-best performance this season behind the 17 he had on Feb. 4 versus Portland State. It was his ninth double-double of the season, and he also added a pair of blocked shots.
* Senior Felix Von Hofe finished with 14 points, making a pair of 3-pointers. He is now 10th in career 3-pointers in the Big Sky with a current total of 243, which is 17 from the school record of 260 set by his former Eastern teammate Tyler Harvey from 2013-15.
Turning Point . . .
* Idaho State trailed by as few as five in the second half, and by seven with inside of two minutes left. But a rebound basket by Jacob Wiley and a fast-break layin by Felix Von Hofe -- both after ISU misses – helped EWU regain an 11-point lead. The Eagles closed out the win by making its last eight free throw attempts in the final minute, completing a 19-of-21 stretch for the Eagles in the last 7:01. Eastern entered the game as the Big Sky leader in free throw percentage at 75.5 percent, ranking the Eagles 34th nationally. Eastern finished the game 27-of-34 for 79.4 percent, including 25-of-29 in the second half for 86 percent.
Key Stats . . .
* With a 44 percent second half shooting the basketball, the Eagles came up just short in hitting the 50 percent mark in a game for the 15th time this season. However, Eastern still out-shot Idaho State 49 percent to 46 percent, out-rebounded the Bengals 38-31 – the eighth-straight game EWU has had an advantage.
* The Eagles have compiled some impressive records in several areas this season, including a 16-2 record when scoring 73 or more points and 14-3 when making 45.0 percent or better from the field. Eastern entered the ISU game ranked first in league games only in field goal percentage (.509) and scoring margin (+7.9).
* Recently, the Eagles have been impressive rebounding the basketball, with an 11-3 record when they out-rebound opponents. Eastern has advantages in 12 of the last 15 games – with a current streak of eight in a row -- but in its first 14 games, Eastern had a rebounding advantage just two times. The Eagles are now a perfect 12-0 when they force 12 or more turnovers after ISU had 13.
Team Highlights . . .
* Eastern was sensational early, taking leads of 13-3, 24-7 and 32-11 in the opening 11 minutes. Jacob Wiley was a beast, missing his first shot and then hitting eight straight. Eastern's defense did its part, holding ISU without a field goal for two early stretches. Eastern survived a 0-of-6 shooting stretch to take a 43-33 lead at halftime, with Wiley (19) and Bogdan Bliznyuk (15) combining for 34 of EWU's 43 points.
Notables . . .
* Eastern is 45-29 all-time against ISU, including a 42-28 record since becoming a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season (14-19 on the road, 27-8 at home, 1-1 at neutral sites). The Eagles have won 13 of the last 15 meetings, with an eight-game winning streak snapped in the 2013-14 season when the Bengals prevailed 72-83 in Pocatello. Eastern won 65-57 at home in the 2014-15 season, extending EWU's home winning streak versus ISU to 13 games dating back to a 65-63 loss on March 1, 2003. Eastern also won later in the year in Pocatello by an 85-81 score, but then lost its home-court winning streak in the lone meeting in 2015-16 with a 75-71 loss at Reese Court.
More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .
On ISU Victory: "I told our team that anytime you win a Division I basketball game you should be grateful. Idaho State played hard for all 40 minutes, and we came out with a 12-point win. We got up early so guys were thinking it was going to be a 25-30 point win. But the other team showed a lot of pride and we had a really bad shooting night. Fortunately, we made just enough of them."
In Making 22-of-30 Inside: "It's no secret – we try to play inside-out and try to establish Jake inside. He's pretty good, and he was juiced to play today – he was excited. He made some tough shots too, and he made the easy ones. It's fun for him playing with guys who keep throwing him the ball. That's our whole team's mindset – we don't care who scores, we just care that we score. If the opponent has no answer for him, it's a good idea to keep doing that, so we're a pretty smart team. Somebody has to be the horse at the end who brings the water, and boy does Jake do it well."
On Last Year for Wiley: "A year ago we were wondering how we were going to replace Venky Jois – arguably the best post player who ever came through Eastern Washington. At Senior Day last season, there was a guy sitting up in the stands saying this is where he wanted to go and this is what he wanted to do. He came and worked his tail off all summer, and then went on our foreign tour to Australia, and Jake said 'I like this office, it works for me.' And then his coach says, "I like this post player, this works for me.' It was like love at first sight. He just keeps getting better each week and he's a big part of why we have such great chemistry. Imagine somebody getting these types of numbers with an ego thinking about himself. It just shows you he's a mature man to have this kind of success. It was a match made in heaven – if there was a guy sitting in the stands today watching Jake, I have a scholarship for him if he can come do what Jake did."