Eagles take down Big Sky leader Montana, 74-65 - SWX Right Now-Sports for Spokane, CdA, Tri-Cities, WA

Eagles take down Big Sky leader Montana, 74-65

Photo: EWU Athletics Photo: EWU Athletics

By EWU Athletics

What was a two-man show in the first half, turned into a total team effort in the second half for the Eagles.
Becoming the first Big Sky Conference team to knock off the unbeaten league leaders, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team made a three-point halftime lead hold up in the second half en route to an impressive 74-65 win over previously unbeaten Montana Thursday (Feb. 15) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Led by the 27 combined points by Bogdan Bliznyuk and Benas Griciunas in the first half, eight different Eagles scored in the second half. Redshirt freshman Jacob Davison scored all 12 of his points after halftime as EWU didn't trail for the last 35 minutes, and led for the final 25:42.
"Our guys stepped up – it was a full team effort," said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans, whose team improved to 8-1 at home with the victory. "They played with passion and energy today, and it was fun watching them play. I told the team before the game that it's a player's game – there aren't too many X's and O's we were going to do. We were going to use the high ball screen and go make plays. That was what we did the last four minutes of the game and Jacob made some huge plays down the stretch."
The victory versus the league-leading Grizzlies ended Montana's 13-game winning streak, dating back to a loss at Washington on Dec. 22 in UM's final non-league tune-up. It was the worst loss for UM since falling 70-54 at Stanford on Nov. 29 – just 15 days after the Eagles handed the Cardinal a 67-61 defeat.
Entering Thursday, Montana was running away with the league race at 13-0, while EWU and several other teams are mired smack dab in the middle of the battle for perhaps the last of four first-round byes in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Eastern ended a mini two-game losing skid with its 10th win in the last 15 games, and is now 13-13 on the season and 8-5 in the league.
Eastern's all-time leading scorer, Bliznyuk finished with a team-high 19 for the Eagles, with 15 of those coming in the first half. Now with 1,944 points in his illustrious career, he moved into the top five in Big Sky Conference history. Only four players in league history have hit the 2,000-point mark, with the record currently at 2,102. Bliznyuk also has sole possession of EWU's games played record, having played in his 129th game as an Eagle against UM.
The Eagles host Montana State on Saturday (Feb. 17) at 2:05 p.m. Pacific time in a game televised internationally by Eleven Sports.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are 13-13 on the season and 8-5 in the Big Sky, and have won 10 of their last 15 games. The Eagles are now 54-10 (84 percent) at Reese Court in the past five seasons since 2013-14. However, the Eagles saw their 12-game home court winning streak snapped against Idaho on Jan. 12, having not lost at home since falling to Montana on Jan. 7, 2017.
* Montana is 20-6 on the season and 13-1 in the league, having entered the game ranked in the top 20 in NCAA Division I in winning percentage (.800). Montana is 11-0 at home this season, and lost for the first time in eight league road games this season.
What it Means . . .
* A win over the Grizzlies not only boosts EWU in the standings, but could also provide a significant tiebreaker advantage at the end of the year. If teams are tied in the league standings and have split their season series, the next tiebreaker would be against teams in descending order of finish in the league. Therefore, a win over the Griz would be a rare occurrence this season. Eastern is fourth in the league standings at 8-5, just ahead of 8-6 Northern Colorado and 7-6 Idaho State. Montana State is currently 6-7. The Big Sky Conference Tournament takes place March 6-10 in Reno, Nevada. The top four teams receive first-round byes and won't have to play until March 8 in the quarterfinals.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern plays Saturday (Feb. 17) against Montana State, which will begin at 2 p.m. Pacific time and be televised by Eleven Sports. The Bobcats are 13-13 overall and 6-7 in the Big Sky after Thursday's 88-78 loss at Idaho in which the Vandals out-scored MSU in the second half 50-38.
Keys to Game . . .
* Behind combined 13-of-14 shooting, seniors Bogdan Bliznyuk and Benas Griciunas combined for 27 of EWU's first-half points in a first half that EWU led 35-32. Bliznyuk hit 7-of-8 shots and had 15 points, and Griciunas made all six of his attempts and had 12. Eastern made seven-straight shots at one point in the half and used an 8-0 run to take a 21-15 lead with 10:02 left. At one point EWU was 10-of-14 from the field before settling for 62 percent for the half (16-of-26). Montana made just 11-of-25 shots for 44 percent. Eastern took the lead for good at the 5:42 mark in the first half, and didn't trail in the final 35 minutes.
Turning Point . . .
* Eastern extended a three-point halftime lead to its biggest lead of the game at 44-36 by scoring 10 of the first 14 points of the second half. Eastern's lead fluctuated between two and seven points for the next 10 minutes until EWU opened up another eight-point lead with 3:22 to play on a 3-pointer by redshirt freshman Jacob Davison. Montana went 4:31 without a basket during that stretch, as EWU extended the lead to 11 and led by no less than five in the final 3 1/2 minutes.
Top Performers . . .
* Eastern all-time leading scorer Bogdan Bliznyuk closed with 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field, and also had six rebounds and five assists. It was his 23rd double-figure scoring performance of the season, and his 91st in 129 career games. He was 2-of-2 from the charity stripe and has now made 54 consecutive free throws dating back to EWU's game at North Dakota on Dec. 31.
* Senior graduate transfer Benas Griciunas had his third-straight double figure game and sixth of the season with 14 points. He made a pair of free throws in the second half after sinking all six of his field goal attempts in the first half.
* Redshirt freshman Jacob Davison scored all 12 of his points in the second half, finishing the game 4-of-6 from the field with a pair of 3-pointers. He also had four rebounds.
* Sophomore Mason Peatling had nine points, four rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot in just 24 minutes of action.
* Junior Cody Benzel made just 2-of-7 3-pointers in the game to finish with eight points. He entered the game averaging 10.3 in league play.
* Senior Sir Washington chipped in five points and a team-high seven rebounds. He was averaging 8.8 points per league game for the Eagles.
Key Stats . . .
* Both teams finished with 15 turnovers after Montana entered the game ranked 20th nationally in turnover margin at +3.6 per game. The Grizzlies average 16.3 turnovers forced and give the ball up just 12.7 times per game, while averaging 8.0 steals to rank 21st. Eastern entered 39th in the nation in fewest turnovers with a league-leading average of just 11.5 per game. Montana scored 18 points of EWU turnovers, but Eastern scored 14 off UM's miscues.
* Eastern won the rebounding battle 30-27 – just the ninth time this season EWU has had an advantage on the boards (7-2 record). The Eagles shot at a 56.3 percent clip while holding Montana to 43.1 percent. For the season, Eastern is now 12-2 when they out-shoot their opponents and 1-11 when they don't.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk now has 1,944 career points in 129 career games, moving up four spots to fifth in league history. In fact, it took him just 10 minutes against Montana to move from No. 9 to No. 6. He passed Steve Conner from Boise State with 1,927 from 1974-78, followed by No. 7 Steve Hayes from Idaho State with 1,933 from 1973-77, No. 6 Damian Lillard from Weber State with 1,934 from 2008-12 and eventually tied No. 5 Tanoka Beard with 1,944 from 1989-93. Only four players in the 55-year history of the league have hit the 2,000-point mark. Bliznyuk is just the third player since 2000 to crack the Big Sky's top 10, joining Weber State's Jeremy Senglin (2013-17) and Lillard. Senglin scored 2,078 points to rank only behind the record 2,102 Orlando Lightfoot from Idaho scored in three seasons from 1991-94.
Notables . . .
* Bogdan Bliznyuk has made 54 consecutive free throws dating back to EWU's game at North Dakota on Dec. 31. There is no known record for EWU and the Big Sky, but the NCAA single season record is 73 set by Gary Buchanan from Villanova over a 21-game stretch in the 2000-01 season. The career record of 85 came between Feb. 15, 2001, and Jan. 18, 2003, by Darnell Archey from Butler during a 57-game stretch.
* Eastern is 22-50 against the Grizzlies since becoming a member of NCAA Division I in 1983-84, including a 10-27 record in Missoula, 12-21 in Cheney and 0-2 on neutral courts. Montana leads the overall series 67-43.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Beating Grizzlies: "It was a great win playing against the best team in the league. They are well-coached and kept coming back play-after-play. But our players did a great job of making big plays and we did a good job on the glass. (We accomplished) everything we went over defensively and offensively. We tried our best to keep them off the boards but it's hard to do that."
On Jacob Davison: "He's a freshman and they go up and down, but he's been playing great in practice. His last four games he's been playing terrific for us. I have faith he's going to make plays – we ran an isolation for him at the end of the game, and he went one-on-one and made a floater. He was great on the glass too. He fought hard and he's learning – he's getting better and better each game."
On Beating Big Sky's Best: "It shows our guys that we can play with all of these teams if you play with confidence. We were at home tonight, but if we can take that on the road with us to a neutral site at the tournament we can have a good outcome. Our team played great defense today and we made 56 percent against the best defensive team we've played against all year. It's a tribute to our team for being patient and taking great shots."
On What Win Means: "It's a big one because they are in first place. You have to protect the home court and we have to try to sneak out a road win coming up. But we have to worry about Saturday first, and our team is excited about that and playing against probably one of the better guards in the league."

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