RENO — Sacramento State entered the quarterfinals of the conference tournament with a reputation as the biggest and most bruising team in the Big Sky.
Many wondered if Sac’s front line — a unit made up Justin Strings, a 6-foot-7 stretch Armstrong, Nick Hornsby, a 6-7, 240-pound bull and Eric Stuteville, a 6-11, 260-pound senior — might provide a tough matchup for Big Sky MVP Jake Wiley and the Eastern Washington Eagles.
Wiley scored six points to help EWU to a 28-14 lead 13 minutes into game before picking up his second foul. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound monster battled foul trouble for most of the rest of the game, picking up his fourth with 13 minutes left.
It mattered not to the second-seeded Eagles. Eastern Washington got a complete defensive effort from an array of players on its roster, dominated the Hornets on the glass even with Wiley out and then put the hammer down when Wiley returned to the floor with six minutes to play.
Wiley scored 12 in the final 6:45, converted all nine of his field goal attempts overall and finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds despite playing just 26 minutes to lead Eastern Washington to an 89-70 victory over the seventh-seeded Hornets.
“You just ask the next guy to step up,” EWU head coach Jim Hayford said. “We got huge minutes from our bench.
“A 19-point win, wow. That’s a really good team that played hard for 40 minutes. I was still looking at the clock until there was 40 seconds left.”
The win moves Eastern Washington to 21-9 and into the semifinals of the tournament. EWU will take on the winner of No. 3 Weber State and No. 11 Southern Utah in the late quarterfinal on Thursday night.
“It’s frustrating when you get in foul trouble but it’s going to happen in these physical games like you play with Sac State,” said Wiley, a graduate transfer who started his career at Montana before playing the last two seasons at NAIA Lewis & Clark State. “We were trying to keep them off the glass and the result was we got a lot of foul calls. You are anxious, you want to go out and help your team win but our guys off the bench did a good job of holding that lead and extending the lead.”
Sac State stumbled to a 1-3 start in Big Sky play but rallied for six wins in nine games down the stretch, posting victories against Weber State, Montana and league champion North Dakota thanks to its physical play. The Hornets dominated the glass for most of league play, using Hornsby’s offensive rebounding ability, Strings’ offensive mismatch potential and Stuteville’s skills in the paint to beat teams up.
“Over the last month, we’ve been the best rebounding team in the league and they got us on the boards, so give them credit,” Sac State head coach Brian Katz said. “They are a high scoring, octane team. In league, they are over 50 percent from 2, over 40 from 3 and we knew that going in. We told our guys we had to guard them and truthfully we didn’t guard them enough.”
Thursday, the Eagles drilled eight of their first 11 shots, including four of its first six 3-point attempts to jump out to a 28-14 lead before Wiley headed to the bench for the first time. From there, Eastern Washington matched and at times surpassed Sac State’s physicality, winning the rebounding battle 39-28, scoring 40 points in the paint and notching 15 second-chance points.
The Eagles also set the tone in the lane, hammering Strings, Hornsby and Stuteville to prevent any good looks. The Hornets shot 36 free throws but made just 21 of them. Strings, who finished with 17 points, made 5-of-9 from the stripe and 5-of-15 from the floor. Stuteville managed just one point and missed six of his seven free throws. Hornsby made all three of his free throws but finished just 2-of-8 from the floor before fouling out with seven points and eight rebounds.
“We matched their physicality, fouled them a whole lot more,” Hayford said with a laugh. “We sent them to the line 36 times. In the first half, we weren’t going to let Stuteville get any free points and then they didn’t play him in the second half. We didn’t back down.”
With Wiley on the bench, EWU shared the ball. Senior Felix Von Hofe drilled three first-half 3-pointers as EWU built a 40-27 halftime advantage. All-Big Sky point forward Bogdan Bliznyuk took advantage of the smaller defenders the Hornets used against him, converting five of his eight first-half shots in scoring 11 points. The 6-foot-6 smooth, skilled junior missed five of his six shots after halftime but finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.
“We made enough from the outside to keep them honest and then our two studs were studs,” Hayford said.
Sac State’s Marcus Graves scored 14 points before halftime and 15 after to lead the Hornets. His layup in transition to open the second half sparked an 11-2 sack run. Hornsby’s 3-point play capped Sac’s opening run and cut the EWU lead to 44-38, the closest the Hornets would get the rest of the night.
“We weren’t really worried about the halftime score,” Graves said. “We knew we needed to clean some things up and we did. We went into the second half but we let some things slip away. We just had some breakdowns defensively, missed some easy shots down low as well.”
EWU answered Sac’s run with a 9-2 spurt of its own that included five points from Sir Washington, who finished with 11 points. His 3-pointer pushed the lead back to 11, 51-40, with 14:48 left. Sac would not get any closer.
“You know the run is going to come,” Hayford said. “We just tell our guys to play through runs and we are a pretty mentally tough team.”
Wiley picked up his fourth foul with 13:21 to play and EWU up 53-40. By the time Wiley reentered the game with 8:41 left, Eastern had stretched the lead to 64-46 behind three of freshman Mason Peatling’s four buckets.When Wiley reentered, he reassumed his MVP form. After averaging 25.6 points and 10.2 rebounds on 68.8 percent shooting in conference play, Wiley was even more dominant down the stretch. He scored 12 points on four layups and an and-1 dunk to finish 9-of-9 from the floor
“My mindset was hey, I’m fresh, I’ve been sitting down, I need to be aggressive for my team like I have all year,” Wiley said. “That’s really just my attitude: stay aggressive even if you are in foul trouble.”
Eastern Washington must now execute a short turnaround, playing 24 hours after Thursday’s game ended with a spot in the Big Sky championship game on the line.
“For the most part, we have handled the tournament pretty good,” Hayford said. “We got ‘er done and we will play again.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved