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Eastern Washington faces key trip to Montana

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 25, 2017

In this Dec. 13, 2016 file photo, Eastern Washington forward Mason Peatling (14) grabs a rebound during the second half of a NCAA men’s college basketball game at Reese Court in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
In this Dec. 13, 2016 file photo, Eastern Washington forward Mason Peatling (14) grabs a rebound during the second half of a NCAA men’s college basketball game at Reese Court in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

A cornered Grizzly is a dangerous thing.

That’s what Eastern Washington faces Thursday night in Missoula as the Eagles try to stay in the upper echelon of the Big Sky Conference.

The Montana Grizzlies are stinging from a winless road trip that dropped them into the middle of the pack going into Thursday night’s game against the Eagles at Dahlberg Arena.

“This is a tough trip,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford, whose club is at Montana State on Saturday in a game that will mark the halfway point on the conference season.

So far, so good for the Eagles, who are 13-7 overall and tied for second in the conference at 5-2.

Eastern is coming off a convincing home sweep of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah in which they outshot the Lumberjacks and T-Birds 53 percent to 38 percent and had 10 fewer turnovers.

After seven conference games, Eastern continues to have the Big Sky’s best scoring defense (68 ppg) and the best defensive 3-point shooting percentage (.331).

Eastern’s defense is also second in shooting percentage overall (.404, with Idaho leading at .401) while leading the league in scoring margin (plus-8.6) and field-goal percentage (.506).

Teams are struggling to contain forward Jacob Wiley, who scored 51 points last week and was named national Mid-Major Player of the Week honors, as well as Big Sky Conference Player of the Week for the second week in a row.

“Jake is having an outstanding senior season as he gets more and more comfortable with his teammates and our offensive scheme,” Hayford said.

However, that offense struggled in Eastern’s first meeting with Montana, a 65-59 loss on Jan. 7 in Reese Court. That’s also the Eagles’ only home loss in 11 games.

Things figure to get tougher on Thursday in Missoula, where Eastern has struggled of late apart from the landmark Big Sky title game win in 2015.

The Griz (10-11 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky) took a step backward on defense last week, losing 88-79 at Portland State and 92-83 at Sacramento State. Those are the two highest point totals given up all year.

On Saturday, the Eagles face an MSU team that may be playing the best defense in the conference

Last weekend, the Bobcats beat Sacramento State 74-65 and Portland State 71-65 to sweep a road trip. MSU held its most recent three opponents to 37.9 percent shooting and an average of 61.0 points a game.

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