RENO, Nevada — On the heels of the first upset of the Big Sky Conference postseason, Northern Arizona looked like it might take advantage of cold shooting and make it two in a row.
But the defending Big Sky Tournament champions were not about roll over as they chase a second straight trip to the Big Dance. Eastern Washington missed 15 of its 18 first-half 3-point attempts in the first half as NAU hung tough for most of the first 20 minutes. The Eagles got on track in the second half and rolled through one of the youngest teams in Division I college basketball to survive and advance in the final game of the first day of the Big Sky Tournament.
Sixth-seeded EWU hit half of its 14 second-half 3-point attempts and saw three players reach double figures as Eastern posted a 74-52 victory over Northern Arizona. The win snaps a four-game losing streak for the reigning tournament champions.
“We’ve been in this position before. We came out cold but Coach (Hayford) tells us to keep shooting and eventually they will fall,” said EWU senior Austin McBroom, who scored 11 of his team-high 16 points in the first half as EWU took a 36-29 advantage to the locker room. “We just had to keep getting it inside and start hitting jump shots.”
McBroom led three EWU double figures scorers by hitting half of his 14 shots. Senior forward Venky Jois scored 14 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and dished out five assists, four of which led to EWU 3-pointers as the Eagles knocked down 10 total from beyond the arc. Sophomore Bogdan Bliznyuk hit both of his second-half 3- pointers and scored 10 of his 15 points in the second frame.
“This gym reminds me of other big gyms we’ve played in like Georgetown (last year in the first round of the NCAA Tournament) but for other guys, it might have been an adjustment,” Jois said. “We needed 20 minutes to get a feel for the gym before to start out this three-game and now we are ready.”
A season ago, Northern Arizona rode five solid seniors to a berth runner-up finish in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. But the loss of Quinton Upshur, Aasheim Dixon and several others set NAU up for a rebuilding year. The Lumberjacks lost reigning Big Sky Defensive MVP Jordyn Martin for the season early on to a broken leg.
The Lumberjacks shifted to a starting lineup that included four true freshmen alongside junior bruiser Ako Kaluna midway through the conference season. NAU head coach Jack Murphy elected to shift Kris Yanku, a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a sophomore, into a reserve role. After the completion of the regular season and before the start of the tournament, Yanku left the team for conduct detrimental to the team. It is unclear if he will return but he did not play in Reno on Tuesday.
“The guys who competed, I trust,” said Murphy, whose team finished 5-25 this winter. “I would take Marcus (DeBerry) and Mike Green and Torry Johnson to battle any night. They are a little young. We have to hit the weight room. That will be our best friend this summer. But in terms of the guys we have on the court, that’s as hard as we’ve competed all season long. I was proud of how hard our guys competed despite Kris’ absence.
“Kris is an emotional young man and at times, he lets his emotions get the best of him. That happened to be the case and he couldn’t join us here in Reno. But we have a great group of young men on this team and they responded.
“End of the season, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Everyone thinks the head coach is the GM in college basketball but strange things happen all over the country.”
Kaluna led NAU with 11 points and nine rebounds. Isaiah Thomas scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds.
Last season, EWU rolled to a program-record 26 wins that included a victory over Indiana at Assembly Hall and at Montana in the Big Sky Tournament championship in Missoula. This season has produced mixed results, including the four-game losing streak to end the season. The Eagles figured out a way to survive and advance and now they play rival Idaho on Thursday in the late quarterfinal at 8:05 p.m. PST. The Eagles posted a 74-60 over UI in Cheney and fell 66-62 late last month in Moscow.
“As I looked at this bracket, I thought gosh, after we lost to Idaho, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, I kind of liked sixth because you get the jitters away and get a practice in on the floor and a game and a day of rest,” Hayford said. “But you have to play four games in four days. We aren’t thinking about four in four days. We are just thinking about the next one.”