While Buckets Didn’t Come Easy, CWU Takes Advantage Of Free Throws To Snap NNU’s 7-game Win Streak

What a difference those 15-foot freebies make.

For one team, it bailed out a mediocre shooting display.

And for the other, it ultimately lost them the game.

The Central Washington University men’s basketball team only made 36.7 percent of its shots but went 21-of-24 for the line including 7-for-8 in the final minutes to hold on for a 64-59 win over Northwest Nazarene University to snap the Nighthawks seven-game win streak.

“Every practice we shoot free throws,” said senior Jeryn Lucas. “Not messing around on free throws. And they pay off.”

But they sure didn’t for NNU.

While there was a discrepancy between how many times CWU went to the line compared to NNU (4-of-7), the Nighthawks missed two crucial ones.

With the Wildcats leading 61-59 with 29 seconds remaining, Ezekiel Alley bricked both attempts and Xavier Smith came down with the rebound and NNU was forced to foul. That resulted in two successful free throws from Smith.

Alley missed a 3 on the subsequent possession and NNU fouled Lucas who made 1-of-2.

“Anytime you can shoot 36, 37 percent from the floor and still manage to win, I think that shows a lot of toughness,” CWU head coach Brandon Rinta said. “NNU is a really good team, they’re a really good defensive team.”

Lucas led the Wildcats with 28 points on 8-of-16 shooting while going 8-of-9 from the line. He also corralled five rebounds. CWU’s leading scorer has come off the bench for all 21 games this season but continues to produce.

HOT HAND

In this three-game winning streak, Lucas is averaging 22.3 points per game. He put up 27 against Simon Fraser along with five assists.

“It’s a great feeling,” Lucas said of the win. “Coaches said we couldn’t even celebrate last weekend — rival game (Western Washington), he said we have the hottest team coming in (NNU). It’s being mentally tough and focused and we got the job done today.”

That hottest team in the conference now resides in Ellensburg. Of Central’s three wins — all at home — two have come against the second and third-place teams in the GNAC standings (WWU and NNU).

“Coach has been preaching being bought in,” Lucas said. “And I think we’ve been really buying into the system and buying into what he says and believing in each other. It’s showing on the court.”

Lucas was hitting shot after shot in the final 10 minutes. With CWU trailing 42-39, he made 10 of the Wildcats’ next 13 points for CWU to lead 52-50 with 5:59 remaining.

NNU responded with a 7-0 spurt, but Lucas added a jumper to cut the deficit to three. NNU’s Jayden Bezzant scored on the next possession, but senior Davon Bolton drained a 3-pointer, 59-57.

“Luckily Davon and Jeryn came up with some big baskets and we’re able to relive some of the pressure that their defense was putting on us,” Rinta said.

Bolton was the only other player for CWU in double figures with 10 points. He hit two 3s and dished out four assists.

CWU went 7-of-23 from beyond the 3-point line after making 2-of-9 at the half.

From the field at halftime, CWU was shooting at a 33.3 percent clip but went 10-for-10 at the line to trail 30-27.

NNU had three players in double figures with Bezzzant leading the Nighthawks with 15 points. Alley and George Reidy each had 13, respectively. As a team, NNU shot 43.1 percent from the field.

Before its seven-game win streak, NNU’s last defeat came versus CWU in a 72-70 decision on Jan. 7.

The Wildcats still sit in seventh in the GNAC with seven games left. They are 1 1/2 games behind three teams (Western Oregon, Alaska Anchorage, Alaska Fairbanks) who all sit at 7-5.

CWU hosts Montana State Billings (9-11, 4-8 GNAC) at 7:30 p.M. Thursday.