The Wildcats showed why they were picked to finish second in the Big Sky Conference this season.
Weber State did a little of everything and defeated Eastern Washington University 74-53 Thursday (Dec. 20) at Reese Court in the Big Sky men’s basketball opener for both schools.
The Wildcats opened an 11-0 lead and led from start to finish in improving to 5-3 overall. The Eagles, who were out-shot 48 percent to 34 percent, fell to 2-9 overall with their fourth-straight loss. Freshman Venky Jois led the Eagles with 21 points – one away from his career high of 22 against Cal State Fullerton on Nov. 30 in Eastern’s last win.
On Saturday (Dec. 22), Eastern hosts Idaho State in an afternoon game starting at 2:05 p.m.
“This is one of the two toughest home games we will have to play in the Big Sky,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford, whose team started a freshman, two sophomores, a junior and a senior on Thursday. “They beat us by ten in both halves. They are a very, very good team.”
“Every game we are learning, and we are working on getting better,” he added.
Weber State made 48 percent of its shots as five players scored at least nine points. The Wildcats out-rebounded Eastern 41-28 and had 18 fast-break points compared to two for the Eagles.
Eastern, which entered the game ranked first in the Big Sky and second in NCAA Division I with an average of 10.5 3-pointers made per game, made just 4-of-16 versus the Wildcats. The Eagles made 43 percent of their shots in the second half after a 28 percent first half and finished at 34 percent for the game.
“We need to get more and more confident with our offense,” Hayford said. “We need to learn how each other plays so that we can go to the counter for what the defense is taking away. We did not do a satisfactory job of that tonight.”
“They basically said they are going to take away the perimeter game, and make us play one-on-one inside,” he explained. “They made the right decision because they were able to beat us inside, and we were not able to beat them inside.”
Jois made 7-of-12 shots from the field and 7-of-10 free throws, and also had five rebounds and four blocked shots. Junior guard Justin Crosgile added 11 points, six rebounds and a pair of assists. Sophomore Parker Kelly chipped in two points on 3-of-5 shooting.
The Eagles had just eight turnovers in the game – something that caught the eye of Hayford.
“With the pressure, we did really well taking care of the ball,” he said. “We are developing this team so I have to keep going to the positives – we had only eight turnovers against a good solid defensive team.”
Eastern didn’t score in the first five minutes of the game and fell behind 11-0. The Wildcats led by as many as 13 in the first half as they held EWU to 28 percent shooting, including just 2-of-10 from the 3-point arc. Jois scored 10 of his points in the first half for the Eagles.
Weber State added to the lead in the second half, and took its biggest lead of the night at 27 at 58-31 with 11:59 to play.
It was the second-straight game that EWU trailed from start to finish. Eastern fell behind UC Davis 10-0 on Monday (Dec. 17) in an 87-65 loss.
“I would say the reason we had slow starts in both halves was because they were more ready to play than we were,” Hayford said. “One of the things our guys need to understand basketball is a lot like a boxing match. The bell is going to be struck so you better come out. I already talked to the team about it. They went right at us, came running across the ring, and they through a hard punch at us. Maybe a few more times of getting hit in the jaw like that you decide that’s not too much fun, and you start doing the hitting. That’s what we need to do.”
Eastern has a single common opponent with the Bengals, who entered its game Thursday at Portland State with a 1-7 record. Idaho State lost 66-53 at Cal State Fullerton on Dec. 13, while EWU beat the Titans 79-75 on Nov. 30 in Cheney. Eastern, however, hasn’t won since. The Bengals picked up a 70-52 victory over Montana Western on Nov. 29.
“Right now, we need to do a lot of preparation,” said Hayford. “I’m not looking past anyone. What I do know is we need a win. What I tell my guys is keep your eyes on the prize. Let’s go hunt out enough Big Sky wins that we fight for the Big Sky Tournament, and let’s play our best ball in March. It is not going to happen over a three day period. If you do not win enough games, you do not get to be a part of that tournament. Did we lose one on the field? -- I don’t think so. Weber is going to have a good record on the road. Idaho State is someone we need to get.”