Both teams have had hot starts this season, but that didn't compare to the sizzling finish for the Eagles on Sunday (Nov. 27).
Making its last eight shots of the game to complete a comeback from a 15-point deficit, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team extended its winning streak to four games with a 96-90 victory over San Francisco as part of the Eastern Classic at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. All four victories have come at home in a seven-day span, including a tournament championship and a pseudo tourney title to boot.
"That was a shootout between two really good offensive teams," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford after watching both teams hit 55 percent of their shots from the floor. "Our guys were really good offensively down the stretch. We played fearless."
In winning five of their first seven games this season, the Eagles have registered a 5-2 or better start for the sixth time in 34 years in NCAA Division I. The loss was San Francisco's first in five games this season, and kept the Dons from their first 5-0 start since the 1981-82 season.
Eastern used a gritty effort to battle back from a 15-point first-half deficit and took its first lead of the game with 4:09 remaining. The Eagles closed out the game by making its last eight field goal attempts – including six 3-pointers – as well as its last six free throws. Ty Gibson, Cody Benzel, Felix Von Hofe and Sir Washington all hit critical threes down the stretch, and Washington had another key basket as well and a pair of assists and two free throws on his way to a career-high 21 points.
The two teams combined for 31 3-pointers, with Eastern making 13 and the Dons sinking 12 of their 18 in the first 20 minutes. Six different Eagles made treys, and seven players had triples for USF. Junior Bogdan Bliznyuk equaled his career high with 32 points for EWU, and Von Hofe had 21 on 8-of-12 shooting from the field with five 3-pointers.
"At the end of every play, we say somebody has to make a shot," said Hayford. "And we had guys step up at the end of the game. We hit some big threes and ran our offense great."
Won-Lost Records . . .
* The Eagles, who were coming off the championship of the Legends Classic Sub-Regional in at EWU, are now 5-2 after a perfect 4-0 week. San Francisco fell to 4-1, after going 4-0 for the first time since 1986-87. The Dons were denied their first 5-0 start since the 1981-82 team won its first 10 games.
* Only five Eastern teams have improved to 5-2 in 34 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I, including the 2014-15 and 2013-14 teams under head coach Jim Hayford. The '14-15 squad opened the year 8-1, and finished 25-4 after advancing to Eastern's second NCAA Tournament in school history. For the fourth time under Hayford and just the 10th time in 34 years as a member of NCAA Division I, the Eagles had opened the season 4-2 or better.
What It Means . . .
* The Dons from the West Coast Conference defeated Big Sky Conference opponent Sacramento State 77-59 in Saturday's first game of the tournament and the Eagles beat Denver 85-80 in overtime. That meant Sunday's game could be regarded as the mythical title tilt despite having pre-determined pairings.
What's Next . . .
* The Eastern men head back out on the road for a Dec. 4 rematch with Seattle, the team EWU defeated 80-76 in double-overtime on Nov. 22 to capture the title in the Legends Classic Sub-Regional at EWU. Eastern then returns home for its final two home games in December, taking on Great Falls on Dec. 8 and Morehead State on Dec. 13 in a pair of games that begin at 6:05 p.m. Pacific time. That completes a stretch in which the Eagles will have played six of seven games at home. However, the Eagle men will again travel the nation this season by playing teams from 13 different leagues. Eastern's schedule includes four teams which appeared in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and four others who joined EWU last year in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).
Keys to Game . . .
* Eastern trailed by as many as 15 in the first half and by nine at halftime, then the gritty Eagles managed to knot the score at 52 and 54 in the second half. Finally, after 10 minutes of back-and-forth basketball with USF maintaining leads of between one and six points, sophomore Ty Gibson hit a 3-pointer with 4:09 left to give EWU its first lead of the game with a 78-75 advantage.
* The Dons made 10 of their first 12 shots from the field, and used that blistering-hot shooting to stake themselves to an early 29-14 lead. The Eagles compounded it by missing seven of their first 10 shots, and EWU had three turnovers in the opening 2:38 – EWU had just three the previous night in an 85-80 overtime win over Denver.
Top Performers . . .
*Junior Bogdan Bliznyuk equaled the career high he had three games earlier in an 81-77 victory over Bryant. He made 9-of-16 shots from the field and made his first 12 free throws before missing his last that would have given him 33 points. He also had seven rebounds and seven assists, one game after nearly registering his second triple-double in school history with 22 points nine rebounds and 11 assists versus Denver.
* Senior Felix Von Hofe made 5-of-8 3-point attempts and 3-of-4 from inside the arc to finish with 21.
* Junior Sir Washington had a career-high 21 points, eclipsing his previous high of 15 on two occasions. He made 7-of-10 shots from the field, including both of his 3-pointers and 5-of-6 free throws. He also had six rebounds and equaled his career high with three assists.
* Sophomore Ty Gibson came off the bench to finish with 10 points, making 2-of-3 3-point attempts and all four of his free throws in the final 12 seconds.
Turning Point . . .
* Down by six, Bogdan Bliznyuk started EWU's final surge with a 3-pointer with 6:04 to play. That started a run of eight-straight shots made by the Eagles, as they out-scored the Dons 31-19 the rest of the way.
Key Stats . . .
* The 55 percent shooting night for the Eagles was their best of the season, and the 13 3-pointers were their second-most. The Dons have now shot better than 50 percent from the field in the last three games, including a 55 percent afternoon versus Sacramento State on Saturday. San Francisco entered the game making 50.2 percent for the season while EWU was at 44 percent.
Team Highlights . . .
* With a team-leading 25 3-pointers this season, senior Felix Von Hofe has moved into third in school history in 3-pointers made with 191. This week he moved past the 184 of Marc Axton (2002-05) and is now 19 from the No. 2 position (210, Parker Kelly 2012-15). Von Hofe is 69 from the record set by his former teammate Tyler Harvey from 2013-15 with 260. He also moved into fifth in school history with 459 attempts, and his percentage of .416 is 10th (teammate Bogdan Bliznyuk is 11th at .408. Von Hofe now has had 10 performances of at least 20 points in his Eastern career, including seven as a junior in 2015-16 when he had the fourth-most 3-pointers in school history with 105. He has scored in double figures four times this season and 30 times in his career (20 as a junior), and has led EWU in scoring on 11 occasions (eight in 2015-16).
Notables . . .
* Eastern is now 3-1 all-time against San Francisco, losing 66-48 on Dec. 1, 1995, winning 81-76 on Dec. 11, 2014, and winning 81-77 on Dec. 1, 2015. All three previous games were played at USF.
More Comments from Head Coach Jim Hayford . . .
On Comeback After Big Deficit: "We shot the ball well and really hung in there with Felix making some big points all the time. We kept running stuff through Bogdan and kept chipping away, chipping away, chipping away. We're a really good team at the line, and we used the dribble to get to the line and to kick out to shooters. We ran our offense as well as we can run offense. That's how you win a game 96-90. They were hard to stop. They were 12-of-19 from 3 in the first half, and this was one of those games where we just had to outscore them. And we did, and that's why it was such an entertaining game."
On Stretch of Six of Seven Games at Home: "The schedule was an opportunity. When you look at the previous five years, we were pretty much out on the road having to develop our team during this time. This year we were at home and won four close games. Maybe on the road it's different, and we lose a close game and we have to encourage our team. We have to tell them they are almost there and it's about the development of the team. Win or lose, you stay in the mindset that you have to keep growing and keep getting better. But let's be honest, for 18 to 22 year olds it's easier when you are winning to keep hearing that. We made great use of it, and now we have a whole week at home to prepare for Seattle. We'll go over there for a day, then we have another 11 days at home. I think it's 26 of 29 days where we are actually here getting to practice. Sir was the player who said we get to take shots in the gym and get individual work with our excellent assistant coaches. The opportunity to develop a team here is a huge advantage that normally we don't have. What you do with opportunities is the question we all have in life. Our guys made great use of the opportunity."