SPOKANE — Like the fans who drove to watch them, Eastern Washington’s basketball team lost some traction on a snowy Monday night.
A smaller-but-quicker Portland State team stayed a step ahead of the Eagles all night in claiming an important 87-76 Big Sky Conference win at Reese Court.
More important, the Vikings got back in the Big Sky playoff race at Eastern’s expense; instead of sharing third place, the Eagles are now in a four-way tie for sixth.
Only seven of 11 teams will qualify for the tournament.
More road hazards await Eastern, which embarks in barely 24 hours for arguably its toughest trip of the season, Thursday at second-place Northern Colorado and Saturday against a North Dakota team it has yet to beat since UND joined the conference last season.
The grade got a little steeper for the Eagles (8-8 Big Sky, 13-14 overall) mainly because the Vikings were operating with four days’ rest and playing like a team that wanted this one just a little bit more.
“We looked tired tonight,” said Eastern coach Jim Hayford, whose team had won five of its previous six games but was only two nights removed from a trip to Southern Utah.
But Hayford credited the Vikings (8-8 and 13-12) for playing with the energy of a team that was on the verge of falling out of the playoff race.
“They played with great urgency, and they shot the ball very well,” said Hayford, who is 1-5 against the Vikings. “They executed their offense and they earned a win tonight.”
Taking a page from Eastern’s playbook, the Vikings lived by the 3-point shot, especially in two crucial stretches in the second half.
Trailing 31-30 at halftime, the Eagles took a 34-33 lead when Tyler Harvey hit a short jumper early in the second half.
The Eagles wouldn’t lead again. PSU guard Marcus Hall drilled a 3 and Tim Douglas sank two more, the second one curling around the rim before kissing the backboard and falling into the net.
That gave the Vikings a 48-40 advantage, but the Eagles clawed back thanks to a strong inside game led by Venky Jois (18 points and nine rebonds) and Martin Seiferth (13 points and seven boards in just 21 minutes).
Eastern point guard Drew Brandon got the Eagles to within one at 54-53 after he sank two free throws with 10:18 left, but the Vikings responded; they hit a trio of 3s in the next 79 seconds to take a 10-point lead.
“We needed some more urgency once we cut it to one,” Hayford said. “After we got within one, we acted like it was going to go our way instead of digging in and making those stops you need to make on the home court.”
PSU led by 14 points with 6:25 left before the Eagles made things interesting at the end. Harvey, who finished with a game-high 23 points, hit three free throws to make it a five-point game with 1:09 to play, but the Vikings made 8 of 10 free throw attempts in the last minute to put the game away.
On the night, the Vikings got off 62 shots – making 30 of them – and were 11 of 25 from 3-point range. Eastern was 28 of 55 from the field, but just 4 of 15 from long range.
PSU also forced 13 turnovers, the most by Eastern in its last six games. Brandon, who had just four turnovers in his previous three games, had six on Monday.
“In both games (including a 92-83 PSU win last month) their athleticism bothered us,” Hayford said. “The turnover differential in both games speaks about their athleticism, and they had great guard play in both games.”