Bliznyuk makes history as Eagles head to Big Sky Championship - SWX Right Now-Sports for Spokane, CdA, Tri-Cities, WA

Bliznyuk makes history as Eagles head to Big Sky Championship

Photo: EWU Athletics Photo: EWU Athletics

By Eastern Washington Athletics

The glass was once again full – overflowing in fact -- Friday (March 9) for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team.
On a night Big Sky Conference MVP Bogdan Bliznyuk became the all-time leading scorer in the 55-year history of the league and set a trio of tournament records, the third-seeded Eagles beat No. 10 Southern Utah 82-70 in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament at the Reno (Nevada) Events Center.
With the league MVP pouring in 32 points, Eastern extended its winning streak to eight games – its longest in 14 years – to advance to its seventh Big Sky championship game in school history. The Eagles, who won the tourney title in 2004 and 2015, have now won 17 of their last 22 games after a 3-8 start. Now 20-13, they have 20 victories for the second-straight season and third in the last four, with EWU achieving that mark just one other time in the school's 35 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I.
For the fifth-straight game, Eastern led at halftime by at least 12 points, taking a 43-31 lead at half. With Bliznyuk scoring 17 points in the first half, Eastern had its best shooting half of the season both overall (70.8 percent) and from 3-point range (80 percent, 4-of-5).
The Eagles used a 10-run in the second half to lead by as many as 17 and no fewer than seven in the second half. Eastern out-shot the Thunderbirds 64.6 percent – a season-best for the Eagles -- to 50.0 percent, as Bliznyuk sank 13-of-17 from the field and 5-of-7 from the free throw line.
Eastern advances to Saturday's championship game versus regular season champion Montana at 5 p.m., with the winner receiving a berth into the NCAA Tournament. The Grizzlies, now 24-7 with its best season in school history, beat fifth-seeded Northern Colorado 91-89 in Friday's other semifinal game to advance to the winner-take-all game to be broadcast on ESPNU and via
The Eagles have advanced to the Big Dance in 2004 and 2015, were in the NIT in 2003 and have played in the last two College Basketball Invitational (CBI) tournaments.
Bliznyuk secured the record less than five minutes into the game. With a 3-pointer 2:45 into the game, he tied the 24-year old league record of 2,102 points set by Orlando Lightfoot from Idaho in three seasons from 1991-94. Bliznyuk then hit a free throw 30 seconds later to own sole possession of the record, and went on to increase his total to 2,127 points in 136 career games. Just five players layer in the 55-year history of the league have hit the 2,000-point mark, and he stands above them all.
The Big Sky MVP tied the league record by playing in his ninth Big Sky Tournament game, and went on to break the scoring record as well in the second half. He now has 178 points to break the record of 165 set by current Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak from Montana from 1983-86. His 65 career field goals are also a record.
Interestingly, Eastern women's player Delaney Hodgins became just the fourth player in the 29-year history of women's basketball in the Big Sky to hit 2,000 points when she scored 30 versus Weber State on Feb. 22. She had 37 on Feb. 28 versus Southern Utah and a Big Sky and EWU record 46 two days later at Northern Arizona, and now has 2,120 in her career to also rank third all-time in the league (29 years).
Records . . .
* The Eagles are 20-13 on the season and finished 13-5 in the Big Sky, and have won 16 of their last 21 games after a 3-8 start. The Eagles are 11-1 at home, 6-11 on opponent home courts and 3-1 at neutral sites this season, finishing 5-4 on the road in the league season and 8-1 at home.
* The Thunderbirds are now 13-19, and had defeated second-seeded Idaho 92-78 in the other quarterfinal on EWU's side of the bracket to advance to the semis. Southern Utah beat seventh-seeded Idaho State 76-68 in the first round on Tuesday.
* The Eagles split against SUU in the regular season, falling 66-62 in overtime on Jan. 20, then rebounding for a 74-51 home win on March 1.  Bliznyuk averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds in the two games, but also had 11 turnovers and eight fouls. Jamal Aytes averaged 13.0 points against the Eagles on 61.1 percent shooting (11-of-18).\

What's Next in Reno . . .
* The championship game is at 5 p.m. on Saturday and will be televised by ESPNU and via The winner of the game receives a berth into the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles have advanced to the Big Dance in 2004 and 2015, were in the NIT in 2003 and have played in the last two College Basketball Invitational (CBI) tournaments.
* Besides the television broadcast, all Eastern games are carried live on 700-AM ESPN and 105.3-FM in the Spokane/Cheney area, with Larry Weir calling the play-by-play. Broadcasts begin a half-hour prior to tipoff and may also be heard via (search for Eastern Washington University). A mobile phone app is also available via tunein radio.
EWU's Tournament History . . .
* Now in its 31st year as a member of the league, Eastern is making its 16th appearance in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. The Eagles have a record of 15-13 in its 28 games -- 1-0 in the first round, 5-5 in the quarterfinals, 7-4 in the semifinals and 2-4 in the championship. The Eagles advanced to the title game in 1990, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2015, and won the title in 2004 and 2015. Before winning the 2015 title, Eastern hadn't appeared in the tournament at all since the 2011-12 and 2010-11 seasons, which were EWU's first since 2006. The Eagles qualified for each tournament from 1998-2006.

Keys to Game . . .
* Once again, the Eagles had a fast start to take an early 11-6 lead less than four minutes into the game. Eastern had runs of 6-0 and 8-0 to build a double-digit lead, then a 7-0 run gave EWU a 32-18 lead with eight minutes left in the half. True freshman Jack Perry hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Eagles a 43-31 advantage at intermission. Eastern's also led early 18-8 and 35-15 versus Portland State on Thursday in the quarterfinals, and the Eagles have now led at halftime in 14 of its last 20 games, including double-digit leads in 10 of them. In the last five games alone, Eastern has led by 13, 22, 13, 16 and 12 at intermission (average of 15.2 per game), including a 44-22 lead versus Southern Utah on March 1. Eastern has held opponents to 28 points or less in the first half of 10 of its last 19 games, with a pair in which they scored at least 48. In fact, of the 17 total games Eastern has had this season in which they've held opponents to 29 points or less, 14 of them have come in the first half. The Eagles are 17-3 in the 20 total games when they've led at intermission.

Turning Point . . .
* Despite a 4-of-4 shooting start to begin the second half, the Eagles lost ground on the lead when SUU made its first five to cut EWU's lead to seven. But Bliznyuk and Benas Griciunas combined for all 10 points in a 10-0 Eagle run to open a 62-45 lead with 11:16 left. The Thunderbirds missed didn't score for 3:27 and missed three field goals, two free throws and a had a turnover in that stretch while EWU was 4-of-5 from the field and 2-of-2 from the line. Eastern led by no less than six the rest of the way.

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