Call it a learned reflex, but Eastern Washington basketball coach Jim Hayford scoffs at the notion that the Eagles won’t be challenged this week against Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.
The Lumberjacks and Thunderbirds reside at the bottom of the Big Sky Conference standings and have a combined seven wins. NAU, which visits Reese Court on Thursday night, is 4-14 overall and 1-4 during an injury-plagued seasons.
Not so fast, Hayford said.
“Jack Murphy is an outstanding coach,” Hayford said. “His program has been afflicted by injury more than any program I am aware of. They will come to compete and have some very skilled players that are tough to guard.”
That’s the priority this week for Eastern, which is 11-7 overall and 3-2 in the conference after a tough 70-67 loss Saturday at preseason favorite Weber State.
That game may have been a confidence booster – especially for forward Jacob Wiley, who scored 36 against the Wildcats to win conference player of the week honors – but it was still a loss.
“I don’t like losing. We have to put some wins together,” Hayford said.
What better place than Reese Court, where the Eagles are 8-1 this season?
“I don’t know why home court is such a big deal,” Hayford said. “It shouldn’t be, but it is.”
Currently in fifth place, the Eagles need to stay within striking distance of the leaders in hopes of securing one of five first-round byes in the conference tournament, March 7-11 in Reno, Nevada.
The NAU game marks the one-third point in the season for the Eagles. The Lumberjacks are coming off a big home win over Portland State in which they outrebounded the Vikings 51-26 and got 26 points from sophomore guard Mike Green.
Southern Utah (4-14, 2-3) feature one of the most productive players in the league in guard Randy Onwuasor, who averages 23.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
But can either opponent match up with Wiley, who seems to be getting stronger with every game?
In last week’s split at Idaho State and Weber, the graduate transfer had back-to-back career-high performances of 27 and 36 points with only eight missed shots in 44 total attempts.
In the two games combined, he sank 78 percent from the field (25 of 32) and 92 percent of his free throws (11 of 12), making both of his 3-point attempts.
“He’s getting more and more comfortable, and better and better,” Hayford said. “And it couldn’t happen to a better person. He’s a hard worker and even beats the coaches to practice. He’s usually here at 6:15 in the morning and that’s why he’s one of the best free-throw shooters in the country.”
Going into the Weber game, Wiley had attempted just one 3-pointer all year until Eastern designed a play to open the game with a 3-pointer for him. He also hit his second attempt with 7:07 left in the half.
“That was our plan because we thought they would leave him wide open for a 3,” Hayford said. “Our bench was just going crazy because they knew we were going to start the game with that, and coach (Randy) Rahe just looked down the bench at me like, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”
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