5 Thoughts from Eastern Washington’s win at USF: A very Eagle-heavy analysis
Final score: Eastern Washington 81, San Francisco 77
The game changed when: Eastern Washington kept the Dons at bay for most of the second half, before a furious fight back keyed by Tim Derksen and Devin Watson brought USF within three points with 50 seconds left to play. As had been the case all evening, though, the Eagles produced big plays: shots, boards, and spurts of strong D, which helped coat over abysmal free throw shooting (9-of-18 for the game). And, as has become tradition, each big play down the stretch was punctuated by a primal scream from that Eagles inimitable talisman, Venky Jois.
Fun fact: Jim Hayford, Eastern Washington’s fifth-year coach, and the architect of one of the country’s most entertaining brands of basketball, actually played soccer as an undergrad at Azusa Pacific University. (Not yet confirmed with Hayford; this gem came from Felix Von Hofe, one of the funniest cats in college basketball who…well, read on.
Quote of the night: “Coach always says, ‘Steal the other team’s practice.’ ~Eastern Washington junior Felix Von Hofe, on the matchup problems provided by his team’s small-ball (it’s really more like skill-ball) ability. I.e.: Teams don’t normally devote time preparing for five players who can attack off the bounce, as Indiana found out all too well last season. (Search: Parker Kelly three/bloody nose)
1. Here’s where the analysis starts, I swear: Monday night’s win made it two in two years over the Dons for the Eagles, although the respective climaxes, and the cast of characters involved, were markedly different. In EWU’s 81–76 win last December, the Eagles hit eight free throws in the final 1:15 to ice the victory. Very, very different to this time ‘round, but that should be expected. Eastern Washington returns just one starter from the squad that won the most games in program history (26) and went dancing last spring. Tyler Harvey was the face of the franchise, but in Parker Kelly, Drew Brandon, and Ognjen Miljkovic, the three other starters now gone, Eastern Washington was always going to be a work in progress through the first weeks of this season. Heck, five freshmen played against the Dons. And played well. With tonight’s win, they’re 4–3, which is a pretty good place to be.
2. You can’t Hassel the Hofe: In which we return to King Felix. Von Hofe is one of the returning Eagles, now in new roles. More specifically, “being a basic player.” This was Von Hofe, speaking after the game outside the visiting locker room. (Ed note: I would’ve produced an audio file, but the quality would have been hampered by the fact I was laughing every few seconds at something funny Von Hofe said.) What he is detailed to do is knock down shots, which he does quite well (dude’s now 20-of-48 from three this season), and, when defenses get wise and close out, attack the basket and/or set up the other options around him on the court. He finished with a team-high 20 points on Monday, along with two boards, a block, and a steal.
3. Speaking of those options, Take a Bow, Bogdan Bliznyuk: Before 9 minutes had gone in the game, Eastern Washington had scored 26 points. This surge came thanks in large part to the Eagles’ ability to spread the floor and execute with pinpoint precision. They kept the Dons off balance, thanks to Bliznyuk, a 6–6 sophomore who was last season’s Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year. If, during the course of the Eagles’ on-ball screen action, a forward switches onto him, Bliznyuk has the ability to step back and hit threes. If it’s a guard, Bliznyuk can attack off the bounce. He finished with 17 points and four assists. 3a.) A special shout has to go to Austin McBroom, a grad transfer from Saint Louis who may prove to be Eastern Washington’s most vital addition. He entered as the team’s leading scorer, at 15.3 points, and Against USF, he finished with 19 points (on the strength of five threes) and five assists. Most importantly, he oozed seniority. McBroom has that uncanny knack, so often seen in great leaders, of appearing to grow more calm as the game becomes more fraught around him.
4. Venky!!!: There isn’t another like him in the game. Now a senior, Jois is poised to carve one of the most illustrious careers in EWU history, punctuated by those yawps. They grow in force as the game gets tighter, and when Jois unleashed one, late in the game against USF, the home crowd on hand responded with a chorus of Boos. Which is their right. Problem is, that only fires Jois up more fully. There is no showboating in this habit of his; it is sheer exuberance. And unfortunately, that is often misconstrued. But anyway. On a night when he was plagued by a bothersome cough, Jois shrugged aside foul trouble that forced him to sit the final 10:52 of the first half, and finished with 11 points, two assists, and two blocks. And those yells. They really deserve their own stat category. As does his take-over-ability on both ends. It ain’t picture-book, but it is relentless. And that can be very effective, indeed. Oh, and he’s now just 46 blocks shy of the Big Sky all-time blocks record.
5. But back to Felix: After Von Hofe nailed one of his four threes on the evening, a figure sprang to his feet in a corner of the gym. Emmett Naar had made the trip across the Bay from Saint Mary’s, joined by his Gaels teammate Dane Pineau. Which, well, let’s let Von Hofe explain the reunion. “So, I grew up across the street (in Melbourne) from Dane.” Did he know Naar, too? Not growing up, but the three became fast friends as classmates at the Australian Institute of Sport, in Canberra, an opportunity which Von Hofe equated to gaining entry to Harvard: you just don’t turn it down. So, when Naar rose from his seat to herald Von Hofe threes, he put up both hands in that Hova symbol, palms facing inward, forming a triangle. “It’s ‘top of the pyramid’,” Von Hofe said, noting that it designated where the two wanted to end up in the shooting echelon. Was Pineau privy to that symbol, too? “Oh no,” Von Hofe said, between bursts of laughter. “He’s the inverse.”
All of which was too much fun to witness, and even more fun to recount. But there is a reason Eastern Washington got another win in a tricky place to play, despite so much turnover from a season ago. It speaks to the program Hayford has built. Last year, it bloomed. Now, it has a chance to extend its run, and that’s thanks to the culture in place. Cuz it certainly wasn’t the weather that drew Von Hofe to Cheney, Wash. “It’s the people,” he says, before noting, of Hayford, “I would send my son here, so he could play for him.”
One of the great testimonials I’ve heard.