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Big Sky Tournament: Eastern Washington holds off Montana State, advances to semifinals

UPDATED: Thu., March 14, 2019

Eastern Washington guard Cody Benzel celebrates after hitting one of his five second-half 3-pointers Thursday in a Big Sky Conference Tournament quarterfinal win against Montana State. The Eagles won 90-84. (Skyline Sports / Courtesy)
Eastern Washington guard Cody Benzel celebrates after hitting one of his five second-half 3-pointers Thursday in a Big Sky Conference Tournament quarterfinal win against Montana State. The Eagles won 90-84. (Skyline Sports / Courtesy)

BOISE – Don’t tell Mason Peatling that Eastern Washington relies solely on its long-range shooting.

The 6-foot-8 Australian was menacing in the paint Thursday, scoring a career-high 28 points to help the third-seeded Eagles hold off No. 6 seed Montana State 90-84 in the Big Sky Tournament quarterfinals at CenturyLink Arena.

EWU will face No. 7 seed Southern Utah (16-15) in the semifinals Friday night. The Thunderbirds, who split with the Eagles during the regular season, upset No. 2 seed Northern Colorado 83-64.

In a game that featured two of the conference’s more wide-open, guard-oriented teams, Peatling was active from the jump, scoring 19 point in the first half.

Eight of his game-high 14 rebounds were offensive, many leading to quick putbacks.

“We have a great team of shooters and drivers,” said Peatling, who was recently named to the All-Big Sky second team. “I’m trying to get offensive rebounds to Tanner (Groves), and he’s rolling to the bucket, too.

“It’s a lot of fun, but we were trying to play defense and get some stops, and it didn’t seem to happen.”

Montana State (15-17) tied a season high with 16 3-pointers, but the Bobcats couldn’t hit the big one.

NBA prospect Tyler Hall, who broke ex-EWU star Bogdan Bliznyuk’s all-time Big Sky career scoring record in January, had the ball in his hands with 12 seconds, but he air-balled the potential winning shot.

Hall hit a 3 to tie the game at 81 at the 1:31 mark, but EWU forward Jesse Hunt (18 points) answered with a jumper and a pair of free-throws in the final minute.

Keljin Blevins, who scored a team-high 27 points for the Bobcats, cut the Eagles’ lead to 85-84 with 29 seconds left with a 3. EWU followed by hitting 5 of 6 free throws to put away the Bobcats.

“I came off the screen and he sagged off,” Hall said of his last 3-point attempt. “I’ve shot that same shot my whole career. It looked good, it felt good, but it wasn’t.”

EWU (15-17) held Hall and fellow standout guard Harold Frey to 15 second-half points.

When EWU established itself on the inside, senior guard Cody Benzel stretched out Montana State’s defense.

Benzel, a Ferris graduate, sank all five of his 3s in the second half and scored 22 points, a week after scoring a career-high 30 points in a win at Idaho State.

“I’ve definitely been more aggressive when looking to shoot,” Benzel said. “And it’s been paying off.”

Second-year EWU coach Shantay Legans’ squad beat Southern Utah, then a No. 10 seed, in last year’s semifinal.

Like last year, Legans said the Thunderbirds have one of the best rosters in the conference despite their low seed, including Boise State transfer Cameron Oluyitan (12.8 points per game).

“We know we have to slow them down inside,” Legans said. “They did a good job down there being physical with us, so we’ll be prepared for that tomorrow.”

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