Big 1st half lift Eagles past Northern Arizona 81-76 - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather

Big 1st half lift Eagles past Northern Arizona 81-76

Photo: EWU Athletics Photo: EWU Athletics

By Eastern Washington

The Eagles started hot and confident, and needed to end it that way too.
An 18-0 first half run helped open an early 28-point lead, but the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team needed every little bit of that advantage to lead from start-to-finish and edge Northern Arizona 81-76 Thursday (Jan. 18) at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk made all 16 of his free throws and scored 28 points, while true freshman Jack Perry and junior Ty Gibson hit big baskets in the last 1:06 to help EWU win for the sixth time in its last eight games. The Eagles, who didn't practice Wednesday because of travel delays leaving Spokane, were fresh in the first half, but had to hold on for dear life after that.
"Our team was playing with a lot of confidence," said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. "Even when the game got close I had confidence in them. Northern Arizona made their run early in the half and I thought about taking a timeout, but I knew our players would fight through it. Using our timeouts late was huge – we needed them."
The Eagles used an 18-0 run – all on 3-pointers by five different players – to jump out to an early 29-7 lead. The Eagles led by as many as 28 in the first half and 21 at halftime, but Northern Arizona roared back. The lead was down to 12 less than four minutes into the half and by single digits just a few minutes after that.
But the Eagles never gave up their lead, as Bliznyuk made 10-of-10 free throws for EWU's only points in a 6 1/2-minute stretch. Perry hit a clutch 3-pointer with 1:06 left to put the Eagles up by four, then Gibson sank a reverse layup – only EWU's second 2-point field goal of the half -- with 28 ticks left. Bliznyuk closed out the win with four free throws in the final six seconds.
Besides scoring 28 points for the second-straight time against NAU, Bliznyuk also had five rebounds and six assists. He now has 1,784 career points, 19 away from the all-time record.
Junior Cody Benzel made five 3-pointers to finish with 16 points, and Eastern sank 15-of-23 3-pointers in the game for a season-high 65.2 percent. Eastern had 10 in the first half alone as EWU came just five from the school record of 20.
"We were great on both ends of the floor," said Legans of his team's first-half performance. "Our guys got hot and they couldn't slow us down. We had so many guys getting open looks and knocking them down. Our first half effort was spectacular. I couldn't be happier as a head coach."
Against Idaho one game earlier, Eastern sank eight of its first 13 shots from the field to jump out to an early 14-point lead in the opening seven minutes. But the Eagles scored only 31 points after that and fell 58-51 to the Vandals.
The Eagles and Lumberjacks will end the regular season against each other in Cheney on March 3. Eastern's next game is at Southern Utah Saturday (Jan. 20) at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 9-10 on the season and 4-2 in the Big Sky, and have won six of their last eight games.
* Northern Arizona is now 3-16 overall this season (1-5 at home) and 0-6 in the conference. Both the Lumberjacks and Southern Utah were 0-4 in the league heading into their match-up last Saturday (Jan. 13) in Cedar City, Utah. The Thunderbirds had five players score in double figures to prevail 81-75 while leading for nearly 36 minutes.
What it Means . . .
* Eastern kept pace with the Montana schools in the Big Sky standings, tied for second with four other schools. Eastern and MSU are both 4-2, just behind league-leader Montana (6-0). Weber State and Idaho are also now 4-2. The Grizzlies have four road conference wins already and Idaho has three, EWU and PSU have two and MSU, Weber State, Idaho State all have one all-important road breakthrough.
What's Next . . .
* The Eagles now head for Cedar City, Utah, to play Southern Utah, which lost 80-76 at home to Idaho on Thursday. The Thunderbirds are 7-10 (6-3 at home) overall and 1-5 in the league.
Keys to Game . . .
* Although the Eagles couldn't maintain a hot, hot shooting start, their 15-of-23 performance from 3-point range was too much for NAU to overcome.  Eastern led just 11-7 when the Eagles exploded for six consecutive 3-pointers during its 18-0 run in the first half. Bogdan Bliznyuk hit the first two 3-pointers, followed by single treys by Ty Gibson, Cody Benzel, Sir Washington and Richard Polanco. The Lumberjacks went exactly seven minutes without scoring, and 8:11 without a field goal as the Eagles took its biggest lead of the night at 45-17 with 3:30 left in the half. The Eagles led 48-27 at halftime, scoring its second-most points in a half this season while having its third-best defensive effort.
Turning Point . . .
* An early 11-0 run by the Lumberjacks in the second half game turned the tide and gave NAU confidence. That cut the lead to 12, then the lead was cut to single digits at the mid-way point of the half. Eastern maintained a seven-point lead for the next four minutes and then held on after that. A 3-pointer by true freshman Jack Perry with 1:06 left gave EWU a 75-71 cushion, and a reverse layup by Ty Gibson with 28 ticks left maintained the lead. Four free throws by Bogdan Bliznyuk in the final six seconds closed out the scoring.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk had a team-high 28 points, and also contributed five rebounds and six assists. He now has nine performances this season of at least 20 points, and 35 in his 122-game career.
* Junior Cody Benzel made his first five 3-point attempts in the game and finished with 16 points. He finished the game 5-of-7 from the field, including 5-of-6 from the 3-point arc.
* True freshman Jack Perry made all three of his 3-point attempts and finished with 11 points, three rebounds, three steals and a pair of assists. His clutch 3-pointer with 15 seconds left helped clinch EWU's 81-74 win over Portland State on Jan. 4.
* Junior Ty Gibson, true freshman Richard Polanco and senior Sir Washington all chipped in eight points. They combined for 8-of-17 shooting from the field, including 5-of-8 from the 3-point arc.
Key Stats . . .
* Shooting did about-faces for both teams after intermission. Eastern was blistering hot in the first half, making 17-of-28 shots overall (61 percent) and 11-of-16 (69 percent) 3-point attempts. In the second half, the Eagles cooled off to 32 percent overall to finish the game at 48.9 percent – including 65.2 percent from the 3-point arc (15-of-23). NAU was at 38 percent overall in the first half, then sank 63 percent in the second half to finish at 50.9 percent for the game.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk now has 1,784 career points in 122 career games, second on the school's scoring list and now just 19 behind the record of 1,803 set by Venky Jois (2013-16). Bliznyuk currently ranks 16th in the 55-year history of the Big Sky, only three points behind North Dakota's Quinton Hooker with 1,787 in four seasons from 2014-17. Jois is No. 14 on the Big Sky list. Against Northern Arizona, Bliznyuk moved past the EWU record for field goal attempts. In addition, Bliznyuk needs to play in six more games to equal the record of 128 set by his former teammate Felix Von Hofe from 2014-17.
Notables . . .
* The Eagles have had good success recently in both Flagstaff and Cedar City, including splits on this same road trip in 2015 and 2017, and a sweep in 2016. The Eagles have won the last four meetings in Cedar City dating back to a 69-55 loss there in the first-ever league match-up between the two schools in 2013. Eastern has now won four of the last seven in Flagstaff, but ended the regular season a year ago with a 76-61 loss just two days after beating the Thunderbirds 91-75. That loss to the Lumberjacks cost EWU a share of their fourth regular season Big Sky title in school history.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Winning Nailbiter: "We just wanted to make sure nobody tuned out. Our team played a great first half, but Northern Arizona stepped up defensively and they went bananas on us and hit shots from all over the place. Luckily we got up early and did a great job. Our guys were focused, and they made the right plays at the right time. I'm proud of the effort, even though our performance in the second half needs to be much better. But to come out with a win on the road -- no matter how you get it -- is sweet. We're going for a road sweep on Saturday, and that's huge."
On EWU's 15-of-23 3-Point Shooting: "That was the ballgame. Our guys knocked down shot after shot after shot. We have a confident group of shooters. We didn't shoot the ball well our last time out at home, but we came out on the road in a big huge dome and made shots. It's hard to make shots in this type of arena, and our guys were banging in shots."
On Bliznyuk's 16-of-16 Free Throw Performance: "He's a big, strong player, and he's handling the ball and getting whacked and hit a lot. A lot of times he doesn't get as many calls as a smaller point guard up top, but tonight he got a lot of calls. He did his due diligence and knocked down the free throws."
On Cody Benzel: "He's been playing great. The thing that got him into the starting lineup and his minutes up is his defense. He's been doing a great job defending the other team's best shooters. He came out and took defense to heart, and wanted to show us he could defend. Since then he's been playing great basketball and has helped us out tremendously both offense and defense. He's been on fire since then."
On Jack Perry: "I'm on him the whole game to talk more and to lead more, but he's a freshman and he's learning. But when he gets these open looks, he's a great shooter and a smart player. He gets guys involved and he's a great defender. I like him shooting those shots – I want him to get more shots. He's more of a pass-first guy, but I don't mind if he shoots 10-15 shots because he's that good of a shooter."
On Richard Polanco Getting Extra Minutes in the Absence of Benas Griciunas: "Richard played a great first half and stepped in for Benas, who didn't play tonight. He played a terrific 13 minutes for a freshman and he told me he was the most tired he's ever been in his life. He did great."

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