Eagles open Big Sky play with loss to Northern Colorado 88-75 - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Eagles open Big Sky play with loss to Northern Colorado 88-75

Photo: EWU Athletics Photo: EWU Athletics

By Eastern Washington Athletics

A late rally came up short as the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team opened Big Sky Conference play with an 88-75 loss at Northern Colorado Friday (Dec. 29) in Greeley, Colo.
Although the Bears led from start to finish, a 9-3 Eagle run late in the game cut the lead to seven. But the Bears regained a double-digit lead and snapped EWU's two-game winning streak overall and a two-game victory streak in the series versus UNC.
Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk scored 23 to lead the Eagles, and junior Jesse Hunt equaled his career high with his second-straight 16-point performance. The Bears led by as many as 16 and never trailed, and out-shot Eastern 55 percent to 45 percent. It was the best shooting performance against EWU this season and the third-most points the Eagles have surrendered.
The Eagles and Bears had three common opponents in the preseason, and EWU was 0-3 versus those foes while UNC was 2-1. Northern Colorado is now 4-1 at home this season and is 10-4 overall, while the Eagles fell to 1-8 on opponent home courts and is 5-9 on the season.
"Road wins are hard to come by in the Big Sky," said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. "I felt like we were prepared and ready for the Northern Colorado game. Our preseason schedule set us up for these types of road games. We just didn't come out and execute and do what we were supposed to do."
The two teams will play again in Cheney on Jan. 27. Eastern's next game is at defending Big Sky regular season and tournament champion North Dakota on New Year's Eve.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 5-9 on the season and had entered league play with a two-game winning streak. Eastern was coming off resounding 28-point home victories to improve to 3-0 at Reese Court on the season. An 86-58 victory over CSUN (Cal State Northridge) on Dec. 17 snapped a five-game losing skid – all on the road – then EWU beat Providence (formerly Great Falls) 94-66 on Dec. 20. Eastern led from start to finish in both – and by double-digits for 55:50 out of a total of 80 minutes. Eastern led by double digits for the last 27:15 against CSUN and the last 25:15 versus Providence.
* The Bears are now 10-4 this season, and had lost 94-91 at UNLV on Dec. 22 prior to playing the Eagles. Eastern also lost on the road to the Runnin' Rebels by a 91-76 score on Nov. 17. Prior to that, UNC registered a 91-84 victory on Dec. 19 at Wyoming, a team EWU lost to in overtime by a 93-88 score on Dec. 12. The Bears also won 63-62 at a neutral site over South Dakota, a team EWU lost to 75-73 on the road.
What it Means . . .
* While Eastern came up short in its quest for a Big Sky road breakthrough, it's an 18-game league season. A year ago Eastern battled to the end for the Big Sky title, and ended up second in the regular season before advancing to the semifinals of the league tournament. In the preseason media poll, Eastern was picked to finish sixth in the league – just ahead of No. 5 UND and just ahead of No. 7 UNC. The poll of coaches in the league had UNC at No. 4, with North Dakota sixth and EWU seventh. The Eagles are coming off a third-straight appearance in a national postseason tournament, and were 22-12 overall a year ago. Eastern finished 13-5 in the Big Sky to finish second behind regular season champion North Dakota, and then the Eagles advanced to the semifinals of the league tournament.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern next plays at North Dakota, the defending Big Sky regular season and tournament champs, on New Year's Eve at 2 p.m. Pacific time. North Dakota is 4-8 after going 5:54 without a point and 10:25 without a field goal in the first half of a 74-57 league-opening loss to preseason favorite Idaho. Prior to that, the Fighting Hawks suffered a narrow 89-83 overtime loss at nationally-ranked Gonzaga on Dec. 16.
* The North Dakota game won't be televised in the Eastern Washington region, but will available in the Midwest through the Midco Sports Net. All of EWU's remaining regular season games will be available via http://watchbigsky.com via Pluto TV. In addition, 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.
Keys to Game . . .
* The Eagles shot at a 45.3 percent from the field and has now had their top five shooting games of the season in their last five outings. The Eagles made 29-of-64 overall and 8-of-18 from the 3-point stripe (44.4 percent). But Northern Colorado topped that by shooting at a 55.2 percent clip, and sank 18-of-23 free throws to EWU's 9-of-11. Eastern had entered the game making over 50 percent of its shots in its last two games, and are now 5-0 when they out-shoot their opponents and 0-9 when they don't.
Turning Point . . .
* A pair of baskets by Bogdan Bliznyuk, one by Jacob Davison and then a 3-pointer by Jesse Hunt accounted for a 9-3 Eastern run to help EWU pull within 66-59 with 6:39 to play. But the Bears regained control with an 11-4 run to take a 14-point lead, and led by no less than 12 the rest of the way.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk sank 10-of-18 shots from the field and all three of his free throws to finish with a game-high 23 points. He also had six assists and eight rebounds. He now has six performances this season of at least 20 points, and 32 in his 117-game career.
* Junior Jesse Hunt equaled his career high with 16 points for the second-straight game, making 5-of-10 shots from the field and 4-of-5 free throws. He also played a career-high 29 minutes and finished with a career-high four blocked shots and team-high eight rebounds.
* Senior Sir Washington started his final league season in an Eagle uniform by coming off the bench to contribute nine points and five rebounds.
* True freshman Richard Polanco came off the bench to add seven points.
* True freshman Jack Perry chipped in five points, four assists and a pair of rebounds.
* Junior Ty Gibson was limited to just two shots – both 3-pointers – and sank one of them. Last season in Greeley, Gibson scored a career-high 21 points in his first start of the season and third of his career as the Eagles recorded a 70-44 road victory over Northern Colorado on Feb. 11.
Key Stats . . .
* Six Bears scored in double figures, including all five starters. Northern Colorado also out-rebounded Eastern 37-29, but EWU had 14 points off 11 UNC turnovers, compared to eight points by the Bears on 11 Eagle miscues. Andre Spight had 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead UNC, and fellow guard Jordan Davis had 17 points
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk is now just 120 points from ending what could be a short-lived record. In 117 career games (seventh in school history), Bliznyuk has a current total of 1,683 points – 58 from second and 120 from the school record. Next on the list is Ron Cox (1,741 from 1974-77) and former teammate Venky Jois (school-record 1,803 points from 2013-16). In addition, if Bliznyuk plays 11 more games he will equal the record of 128 set by his former teammate Felix Von Hofe from 2014-17. He is also now just 12 free throws from the career record of 386 held by 10-year NBA veteran Rodney Stuckey (2006-07).
Notables . . .
* The Eagles are now 11-11 all-time versus UNC (7-3 in Cheney, 4-8 in Greeley), with the first meeting taking place on Dec. 20, 1971, when Eastern beat the Bears 76-68 in Greeley, Colo. Since then, all of the meetings have been with EWU as a member of NCAA Division I (since 1983-84), starting in the 2006-07 season when the Bears became a Big Sky Conference member. Eastern had won the last two meetings, including last year's 70-44 road win and a 97-80 home victory the year before.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On UNC Loss: "We had a slow start but I give Northern Colorado all the credit – they played well. They came out defensively and tried to force our guys out off some passes. We missed come chippies early inside and scoring only four points in the first few minutes of the game kind of hurt. But when you score 75 points in a game, that was good enough to win. We just had to play better defense and we didn't do that tonight."
On Hunt: "Jesse did a great job – he was at the rim every time. But he was gassed at the end and tired. He played a lot of minutes and we have to make sure he's ready to go because we're playing without Mason."

On Shooting: "We have to keep shooting them and they will fall. We had some good players shooting some good shots. We just got rushed at times."
On Defense: "They shot 55 percent overall and we have to be better than that. We gave up layups and open threes – especially timely threes – and that hurt. We have to make sure we are in good positions and doing the right things."
On Jordan Davis and Andre Spight: "I think they are maybe the best tandem at guard in the league. One shoots three and one gets to the rim. Those two players are really good, but I still think we'll be better. We have a couple of players out because of injuries (Luka Vulikic and Mason Peatling), but it's next man up. You have to stop dribble penetration – that's the name of the game once the league season begins. It's hard to guard dribble penetration when you are a little late on rotations and not doing great on ball screens."

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