EWU’s Martin Seiferth, left, defends against Fullerton’s D.J. Seeley.
As growth spurts go, this one is as graceful as they get.
A young Eastern Washington basketball team grew up in the second half of Friday night’s game with Cal State Fullerton, gaining not only a 79-75 win but the promise of more growth to come.
“The first thought that went through my head was our team grew up a lot tonight,” said Eagles coach Jim Hayford, whose club earned a signature win in its first home game of the season.
Most of that growth happened in the second half, without the services of starter Collin Chiverton – who is in California on a personal emergency – and with Eastern trailing by eight points against an aggressive, fast-paced team.
In Chiverton’s place, forward Thomas Reuter scored four straight points to ignite a 13-2 run.
“We wanted to make them pay for having four guards, and Thomas was the mismatch,” said Hayford, adding that Chiverton – the Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year last season – is on indefinite leave after a close friend died in California. That comes a month after the death of Chiverton’s mother.
“Our whole team really hurts for Chiv right now,” said Hayford, whose club improved to 2-5 entering Thursday’s home game against Idaho.
“I think all Thomas thought was ‘I need to play up to my ability and that’s the best I can do to fill his shoes.’ And he did a great job.”
Six points from redshirt freshman forward Venky Jois extended the rally, which was punctuated by a long 3-pointer from junior point guard Justin Crosgile that put Eastern ahead 63-60 with 7:46 left.
“I felt that if I got a free look I was going to take it, and it felt good,” said the 5-foot-11 Crosgile, who scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Fullerton, getting 22 points from Kwame Vaughn and 21 from D.J. Seeley, forged a 64-all tie with under 5 minutes left, but didn’t make another field goal until a meaningless 3 with 5 seconds left.
Fullerton (3-3) thrived in its transition game in the first half, but wore down as the game went on and shot just 28 percent in the second half.
“We saw (on film) that they loved to play transition,” Jois said. “But we felt that in a half-court game, they couldn’t match up with us.”
Certainly not with Jois, who shot 10 for 14 and finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds, both team highs. Reuter added 16 points and five boards.
Still, the game nearly went down to the wire. Crosgile drove the lane for a layin that put Eastern ahead 72-68 with 1:26 left, but Fullerton cut it to two on a pair free throws by Vaughn.
The Titans had a chance to take the lead with 36 seconds left, but Vaughn missed from long range and Jois grabbed the biggest rebound of the game. Jois passed to Forbes, who was fouled, made a pair of free throws, then stole the ball and made two more free throws to make it 76-70 with 17 seconds left.