Vandals edge Eagles 66-64 in instant classic - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather

Vandals edge Eagles 66-64 in instant classic

Photo: EWU Athletics Photo: EWU Athletics

By Eastern Washington Athletics

With six lead changes in the final 2:46, it was an instant classic.
But the 20th lead change of the game was Idaho's as the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team fell 66-64 to Big Sky Conference preseason favorite Idaho Friday (Feb. 9) at the Cowan Spectrum in Moscow, Idaho.
Once again providing plenty of drama with a season-high 20 lead changes and five ties, Idaho took the lead for good on a basket with 25 seconds to play. There were six lead changes in the last 2:46 alone as the two teams traded a barrage of baskets, but Eastern's Bogdan Bliznyuk had a potential game-tying layin blocked with six seconds to play.
In the 10 meetings since Idaho re-joined the Big Sky Conference in the 2014-15 season, EWU is 6-4 and the average winning margin for the winning team is just 6.2 points (62 points total). The victory helped Idaho take a two-game lead for third place in the Big Sky Conference standings ahead of fourth-place EWU and Northern Colorado.

"We came up one play too short," said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. "It was great game and a lot of fun. It was going back and forth and there were a lot of lead changes and ties. Players on both sides stepped up and made big shots."
Although sick and throwing up at halftime, Bliznyuk led the way for the Eagles with the 19th double-double of his career, finishing with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Cody Benzel sank five 3-pointers and finished with 15 points, and four other Eagles scored at least six points.
The Eagles were hoping for a reversal of a home loss earlier this season, but instead have losses by a combined total of nine points on their resume. Earlier this season in Cheney, Idaho overcame a 20-6 start by the Eagles and went on to win 58-51. That was the first home loss this season for the Eagles, who were anxious to steal back a victory on the road. So far, EWU is 4-1 at home in Big Sky league games and 3-4 on the road.
Bliznyuk, who equaled the school record of 128 career games played on Friday, now has 1,925 career points in 128 career games, and he is just two points from ranking eighth in league history. Ranking No. 8 is Steve Conner from Boise State with 1,927 from 1974-78.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are 12-13 on the season and 7-5 in the Big Sky, and have still won nine of their last 14 games.
* Idaho is 17-7 overall and 9-3 in the Big Sky, has won seven of its last eight after a 2-2 league start.
What it Means . . .
* Eastern remains fourth in the league standings, tied with 7-5 Northern Colorado. Heading into this Saturday's action in the Big Sky, Montana remains unbeaten at 12-0, with Weber State second at 9-2. Idaho (9-3) is now two games ahead of Eastern and UNC, followed by Montana State (6-6), Idaho State (5-6), and Portland State (4-7). The Vandals have now won their last four games and are 6-1 on the road and 3-2 at home during conference play. The win and season sweep over EWU gives the Vandals a tiebreaker advantage over EWU at the end of the season in seeding for the Big Sky Conference Tournament March 6-10 in Reno, Nevada. The top four teams receive first-round byes and won't have to play until March 8 in the quarterfinals.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern's next home game is a showdown on Feb. 15 versus league leader Montana at 6 p.m. Pacific time, followed by a Feb. 17 game against Montana State which will begin at 2 p.m. Pacific time and be televised by Eleven Sports. The Eagles are now 53-10 (84 percent) at Reese Court in the past five seasons since 2013-14. However, the Eagles saw their 12-game home court winning streak snapped against Idaho on Jan. 12, having not lost at home since falling to Montana on Jan. 7, 2017.
Keys to Game . . .
* The Vandals were aided by 17 offensive rebounds leading to 10 second-chance points, and used that advantage to outscore the Eagles 40-35 after intermission. Nate Sherwood scored 23 for the Vandals, including 19 in the second half.
* The Eagles had two impressive defensive stretches in the first half to turn a 5-0 deficit into a 29-26 halftime lead. Eastern held the Vandals 3:35 without scoring then there were six ties and a pair of lead changes when EWU went on a 10-0 run to take a seven-point advantage. During that stretch, Idaho went 5:10 without scoring and 6:41 without a field goal.
Turning Point . . .
* Idaho led for more than five minutes before the 15th lead change of the game with 2:46 to play on a basket by Mason Peatling gave EWU a short-lived lead. There were lead changes at 2:30, 2:14, 1:12, :43 and then at :25 as the Vandals finally took the lead for good. Eastern's Sir Washington missed a pair of free throws with 12.8 seconds to play before Bliznyuk's final shot was blocked.
Top Performers . . .
* Eastern all-time leading scorer Bogdan Bliznyuk had his fourth double-double of the season and 19th of his career in finishing with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Eastern is now 15-4 when he's had a double-double, as he finished with the fourth performance this season and 19th of his career of at least 10 rebounds. It was also his 22nd double-figure scoring performance of the season, and his 90th in 128 career games. He has now made 50 consecutive free throws dating back to EWU's game at North Dakota on Dec. 31.
* Junior Cody Benzel made 5-of-8 3-pointers in the game to finish with 15 points. It was also his sixth scoring performance of the year of at least 10 points and 14th of his career, and he entered the game average 9.9 in league play.
* Senior Sir Washington had six points and three rebounds. He was averaging 9.1 points per league game for the Eagles. Redshirt freshman Jacob Davison also scored six.
* Sophomore Mason Peatling had a near double-double with eight points and nine rebounds, plus had a pair of blocked shots. Senior graduate transfer Benas Griciunas chipped in eight points.
Key Stats . . .
* The Eagles held Idaho to 39.7 percent shooting, but were just 40.7 themselves. It was just the second time this season EWU has out-shot an opponent and lost. For the season, Eastern is now 11-2 when they out-shoot their opponents and 1-11 when they don't.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk now has 1,925 career points in 128 career games, and he is just two points from ranking eighth in league history. Ranking No. 8 is Steve Conner from Boise State with 1,927 from 1974-78, followed by No. 7 Steve Hayes from Idaho State with 1,933 from 1973-77, No. 6 Damian Lillard from Weber State with 1,934 from 2008-12 and No. 5 Tanoka Beard with 1,944 from 1989-93. Only four players in the 55-year history of the league have hit the 2,000-point mark. Bliznyuk is just the third player since 2000 to crack the Big Sky's top 10, joining Weber State's Jeremy Senglin (2013-17) and Lillard. Senglin scored 2,078 points to rank only behind the record 2,102 Orlando Lightfoot from Idaho scored in three seasons from 1991-94.
Notables . . .
* Bogdan Bliznyuk made 52 consecutive free throws dating back to EWU's game at North Dakota on Dec. 31. There is no known record for EWU and the Big Sky, but the NCAA single season record is 73 set by Gary Buchanan from Villanova over a 21-game stretch in the 2000-01 season. The career record of 85 came between Feb. 15, 2001, and Jan. 18, 2003, by Darnell Archey from Butler during a 57-game stretch. The Eagles have been a solid free throw shooting team this season and entered the Idaho game second in the league and ranked 28th in NCAA Division I (76.4 percent, as well as tops in league games only at 82.2 percent). Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk is second in the league and 19th nationally at 89.8 percent, including 53-of-54 (98.1 percent) in league games only to lead the Big Sky.
* Since 1996 when Idaho first left the Big Sky Conference, the two schools have now played 24 times, with Eastern winning 14 of them. Idaho leads the all-time series 56-29. Since EWU became a NCAA Division I member in the 1983-84 season, EWU is 17-35 against Idaho (9-15 home, 7-16 away, 1-4 neutral).
* Earlier this season in Cheney, Eastern jumped out to a 20-6 lead but fell 58-51 to Idaho on Jan. 12 at Reese Court to end EWU's 12-game home court winning streak. The Eagles held Idaho to 58 points, equaling the fewest EWU had allowed to an opponent at that point of the season. Idaho sank just 40.8 percent of its shots, including only 2-of-9 3-pointers in the second half (22.2 percent). However, after sinking eight of its first 13 shots from the field to jump out to the early 14-point lead, Eastern finished at just 36.4 percent from the field for its lowest percentage since Dec. 7. Eastern's 51 points were its fewest since scoring 50 in a loss to Georgia State in November. Most notably, Idaho held Bogdan Bliznyuk scoreless for 32:12 of the game after he scored nine of EWU's first 20 points. He also contributed six rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. Mason Peatling chipped in eight points, six rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots, and Jack Perry also scored eight with two assists and three rebounds. Juniors Ty Gibson and Cody Benzel each scored six points, but combined to go just 4-of-14 from the field overall, including 4-of-13 from the 3-point stripe. Gibson also had five rebounds and four assists. The Eagles got off to a hot start, opening leads of 10-1 and 20-6, but they couldn't sustain it. The Eagles made eight of their first 13 shots, but then just 12-of-42 after that for 29 percent. Eastern led 34-33 with 15:27 left in the game on a 3-pointer by Gibson, but the Vandals followed with a 10-2 run over the next three minutes to take a 43-36 advantage. A 7-0 Vandal run and a five-minute scoreless stretch for the Eagles helped Idaho open an 11-point bulge at the 2:21 mark, and EWU could get no closer than seven the rest of the way.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Loss: "It was a great game and I have to give credit to Idaho. They played terrific and very tough, and they made plays when they needed to."
On Difference in the Game: "Their offensive rebounds and losing the 50-50 balls hurt us. When you lose those battles, it shows that Idaho came in a lot tougher than us. When we had it, our effort and energy kept us in the game. For them to get 17 offensive rebounds and hit 10 3-pointers, for us to have a shot to win it was huge for us. We're getting better piece-by-piece, but it was a hard one to take today."
On Bogdan Bliznyuk: "He was sick all week and went to see the doctor this week, but hasn't been able to practice. He can't run without coughing and was throwing up at halftime. We have to get him healthy and get our team some rest. It's tough because he is a competitor and it's hard to take him out – he doesn't want to come out. You have to roll with him – he's our stud and our stallion. He keeps us in games and played solid today. He had 16 points and 13 rebounds, and did everything we ask of him. He gets bodied a lot and it takes its toll on him. I'd rather have him at 100 percent, but at the same time his numbers were pretty good."

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