Eastern Washington played with a swagger and confidence that belied its situation.
Saddled with foul woes, too many turnovers and an early deficit, EWU dramatically reversed course and roared back to secure a 78-71 victory over Montana in a Big Sky Conference contest Thursday night at Reese Court.
The matchup was the teams’ first since they squared off in the Big Sky tournament title game last year, a contest the Grizzlies (10-6, 3-2) won to advance to the NCAA Tournament. EWU (4-12, 2-3) avoided a similar outcome, seizing control late in the first half and maintaining it until the final horn.
Making his first start for the Eagles, point guard Tyler Kidd struggled early but was instrumental in the rally against Montana. Kidd turned the ball over four times in the first 5 minutes, but settled in to finish with 13 points and five assists in 36 minutes. Most important, he turned the ball over just once more after his initial struggles.
“It was just, ‘Next play,’ honestly,” Kidd said about moving on from the turnovers that allowed Montana to jump ahead 11-3 early.
EWU’s Mason Peatling, a 6-foot-7 forward, missed the season’s first 10 games with an injury but has averaged a team-best 16 points a game in his five games since returning.
The junior from Australia picked up his first foul on Eastern’s first offensive possession just and was tagged with a second foul 58 seconds later.
The Grizzlies capitalized on Peatling’s absence to build their early lead. EWU coach Shantay Legans was forced to return Peatling to the court.
“Mason is a great player,” Legans said. “He’s one of the best, if not the best, big man in the league. If he’s playing with three fouls, four fouls, I don’t mind doing that.”
Peatling picked up his third foul with just less than 3 minutes left in the half, but EWU didn’t flinch as it rattled off an 8-0 run to close the half with a 32-29 advantage.
Kidd made all four of his free throws during that spurt and all six he took in the game.
“We fed off Tyler,” Legans said.
The Grizzlies pulled as close as 64-61 in the second half with Ahmaad Rorie’s layup with 4:53 remaining, but EWU built a safe lead down the stretch. Jack Perry’s 3-pointer gave EWU a 75-65 lead with a minute left to put the contest out of reach.
Peatling finished with 17 points before fouling out with 24 seconds left. Jesse Hunt was a presence inside with eight points and a game-high 15 rebounds. Jacob Davison added 11 points.
EWU came into the game shooting 38 percent from the floor as a team, a lack of production that Legans attributed to early-season injuries afflicting his roster. The Eagles shot 24 of 50 (48 percent) from the field against Montana, including a 9-for-17 effort from beyond the 3-point arc.
Legans also praised his coaching staff and players for an Eagles defensive effort that held Montana to 4-for-19 shooting from deep. Dating back to the Grizzlies’ overtime loss to Portland State last week, Montana has missed 30 of its last 34 3-point attempts.
Michael Oguine paced the Grizzlies with 18 points and seven rebounds. Rorie and Sayeed Pridgett added 17 and 16 points, respectively.
The Eagles return to Reese Court to play Montana State on Jan. 19 at 2:05 p.m. Montana squares off with first-place Northern Arizona on Saturday.
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