There was no letdown Thursday night at Reese Court – not for Eastern Washington and certainly not for Jacob Wiley.
Coming off a tough loss at Weber State and facing a struggling NAU squad, the Eagles could have mailed this one in.
Instead they special-delivered an 84-62 win that put Eastern back in the Big Sky Conference race and placed Wiley front and center for Player of the Year consideration.
“We needed a game that was a little less tension-filled, and we’ve had some tough ones lately,” said coach Jim Hayford.
“We came to work both Mondays with that same bad taste in our mouths, but the attitude was, ‘let’s go to work,’ ” Hayford said.
And so they did, but Wiley made it look easy. Fresh off a 63-point weekend that was rewarded with Big Sky Player of the Week honors, Wiley put in a bid for another award by scoring a game-high 30 points and going 14 of 16 from the field.
Wiley also had a game-high eight rebounds to help the Eagles to a ridiculous 58-16 scoring advantage in the paint.
“I’m understanding what we’re trying to do with our offense,” Wiley said. “And I’m learning what my role is on the team and what my position is with the offense.”
In his last three games, Wiley has missed only 10 of 62 shots, making 39 of 48 from the field (81 percent) and 13 of 14 from the line (93 percent).
Hayford isn’t surprised.
“You take a player with really high character and tremendous work ethic, and now you give him understanding, and he’s put some dominating performances together.
“It’s really fun to watch him,” said Hayford, whose team moved into a four-way tie for second in the loss column with Montana, North Dakota and Portland State.
Eastern improved to 12-7 overall and 4-2 in the conference going into Saturday’s home game against Southern Utah.
However, the fun didn’t start immediately Thursday night.
In the first half, the Eagles did everything well except shoot the long ball. They were 3 of 17 from beyond the arc, but 12 of 16 inside.
Meanwhile, NAU made four of its first six shots from long range and took its biggest lead, 19-12, on a 3-pointer from Mike Green. The Lumberjacks ended the first half by shooting 43 percent from long range but just 38 percent in the paint.
Wiley set the tone, going 6 of 7 as Eastern outscored NAU 24-4 in the paint before intermission.
Cody Benzel gave the Eagles a big lift late in the half, hitting a three and later getting a steal that led to a three-point play for a 37-29 lead.
Eastern’s 37-31 lead quickly grew into double-digits as the Eagles hit 11 of their first 12 shots. Mason Peatling’s layin made it 50-35 less than four minutes into the second half, and Wiley gave Eastern a 65-47 on a slam dunk with 9:08 left.
The Eagles took their biggest lead at 82-57 with 1:14 left.
Saturday’s game will match the top two scorers in Big Sky play: Wiley and Southern Utah guard Rand Onwuasor. The transfer from Texas Tech came into the weekend averaging 26 points in five conference games.
“It’s kind of like just another night in the Big Sky, because there is another great guard coming at you,” Hayford said. “He’s had some super-human games. We need to use the quick turnaround to really be prepared for him.”
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