EWU runs out of gas in the 2nd half; Griz take Big Sky Tourney & - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

EWU runs out of gas in the 2nd half; Griz take Big Sky Tourney & tourney bid

EWU Athletics
For a half, the Eagles looked every bit like the Big Sky Conference's representative in the NCAA Tournament.
But a turnaround in fortune in the second half helped Montana defeat the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team 82-65 in EWU's seventh Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game in school history Saturday (March 10) at the Reno (Nevada) Events Center.
The Eagles led 40-29 at halftime thanks to 53.3 percent shooting that included 8-of-13 from the 3-point line – a sizzling 61-5 percent. But Eastern sank only 38 percent in the second half – 1-of-10 from the arc – and was outscored 53-25. Montana made 58 percent its shots in the game and 63 percent in the second half, using a collective 28-4 run in a 10-minute span to not only overcome a seven-point EWU lead, but take a 17-point lead itself.
Although the Eagles still hope to get a postseason bid to a national tournament, Eastern was trying for its third NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. The Eagles have advanced to the Big Dance in 2004 and 2015, were in the NIT in 2003 and have played in the last two College Basketball Invitational (CBI) tournaments. Montana advanced to their 10th NCAA Tournament.
"Our success is going to continue," said a disappointed but inspired Eagle head coach Shantay Legans. "We're really proud of this team and way they competed – it was amazing. If our fans saw our locker room after the game it would have broken their hearts. At the same time, our players are great kids and they all have great things ahead of them."
Eastern's Bogdan Bliznyuk was held to 15 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field, but he still earned All-Tournament honors for the Eagles. He scored 82 points in three 2018 tournament games, making 31-of-46 shots overall (67.4 percent), 6-of-8 from the 3-point stripe and 14-of-18 free throws. His points, field goals and field goal attempts were Big Sky single tournament records.
Redshirt freshman Jacob Davison scored 11 first-half points and finished with a team-high 16, and matched Bliznyuk with a team-high seven rebounds. Sophomore Mason Peatling had 15 points and four rebounds on 7-of-9 shooting. True freshman Jack Perry chipped in nine points.
Eastern finished the game at 45.8 percent overall and 39.1 percent from the 3-point stripe (9-of-23). In its first two games in the tourney, Eastern made a combined 57-of-98 shots overall (58.2 percent) and 14-of-25 (56.0 percent) from the 3-point stripe. The Eagles are now 20-14 overall while the Grizzlies improved to 26-7 with its best season in school history.
"I'm disappointed and I'll probably look at this game a 1,000 times," admitted Legans. "I'm sure there are things we could have done a lot better tonight."
In a semifinal win over Southern Utah, Bliznyuk broke the 24-year old league all-time career scoring record of 2,102 points set by Orlando Lightfoot from Idaho in three seasons from 1991-94. Just five players in the 55-year history of the league have hit the 2,000-point mark, and he stands above them all with 2,142 points in 137 career games
He also holds Big Sky Tournament career records for games played (10, 7-3 record), minutes (333), points (193), field goals (72) and field goals attempted (126). He shattered the previous scoring record of 165 set by current Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak from Montana from 1983-86.
Bliznyuk made 77 consecutive free throws in an 18-game stretch from Dec. 31 to March 8 to set a new NCAA Division I single season record.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are 20-14 on the season and finished 13-5 in the Big Sky, and have won 17 of their last 23 games after a 3-8 start. The Eagles are 11-1 at home, 6-11 on opponent home courts and 3-2 at neutral sites this season, finishing 5-4 on the road in the league season and 8-1 at home. With an 82-70 victory over Southern Utah in the semifinals, Eastern extended its winning streak to eight games – its longest in 14 years. Eastern has 20 victories for the second-straight season and the third time in the last four, with EWU achieving that mark just one other time in the school's 35 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I.
* The Eagles are coming off a third-straight appearance in a national postseason tournament, and were 22-12 overall a year ago. The Eagles were 26-9 in the 2014-15 season when Bliznyuk was the league's Freshman of the Year and EWU advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
* The Grizzlies are 26-7 overall and won the Big Sky regular season title with a 16-2 record. The Eagles won the lone regular season meeting against the Grizzlies by a 74-65 score on EWU's home court on Feb. 15, in a game in which Big Sky MVP Bogdan Bliznyuk scored a pedestrian 19 points with six rebounds and five assists. But with four other players scoring at least eight points and the Eagles making 56 percent of their shots, EWU led for the final 25 minutes and handed the Grizzlies their first league loss after a 13-0 start.
* EWU is now 1-5 versus the Griz in the Big Sky Tournament and 1-2 in the title game, having won in the 2015 game was one for the ages. The Eagles trailed by 11 with six minutes left, but out-scored the Grizzlies 21-6 the rest of the way. In that run, EWU forced four Montana turnovers and Tyler Harvey scored eight points as EWU took the lead for good with 1:33 left. The Eagles lost 74-66 in the 2012 semifinals in Missoula; 73-71 in overtime in the 2006 semifinals in Flagstaff, Ariz.; 58-48 in the 2005 quarterfinals and 70-66 in the 2002 championship in Bozeman.

What's Next . . .
* The Eagles are hoping to receive a postseason invitation, most likely to play in the College Basketball Invitational. Eastern has advanced to the Big Dance in 2004 and 2015, were in the NIT in 2003 and have played in the last two CBI tournaments. Montana receives the Big Sky Conference's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament will find out who and where they play on Sunday at 3 p.m. Pacific time on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on TBS.
EWU's Big Sky Tournament History . . .
* Now in its 31st year as a member of the league, Eastern made its 16th appearance in the Big Sky Conference Tournament in 2018. The Eagles have a record of 15-14 in its 28 games -- 1-0 in the first round, 5-5 in the quarterfinals, 7-4 in the semifinals and 2-5 in the championship. The Eagles advanced to the title game in 1990, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2015 and 2018, and won the title in 2004 and 2015. Before winning the 2015 title, Eastern hadn't appeared in the tournament at all since the 2011-12 and 2010-11 seasons, which were EWU's first since 2006. The Eagles qualified for each tournament from 1998-2006.
Keys to Game . . .
* After making 53.3 percent of its shots in the first half, including 8-of-13 3-pointers for 61.5 percent, Eastern suddenly went cold in the second half. Eastern was just 1-of-11 from the 3-point line after intermission, leading to a 36.7 percent shooting half. Montana sank 59.2 percent of its shots in the game, a high versus EWU this season. The result of the second-half struggles was EWU's fifth-lowest point total in a half with 25, and the fewest in a half since Jan. 20 when they scored 24 in the second half of a 66-62 overtime loss to Southern Utah. The 65 points EWU scored was its lowest in its last nine games dating back to a 66-64 loss at Idaho on Feb. 9.

Turning Point . . .
* The Eagles led 40-29 at halftime, the 15th time in EWU's last 21 games it's had a halftime lead. In fact, in the last six games alone, Eastern has led by 13, 22, 13, 16, 12 and 11 at intermission (average of 14.5 per game). But this time, the lead didn't hold up as UM out-scored EWU 53-25 in the second half. Eastern had a seven-point lead at 50-43 with 14:38 left on a 3-pointer by Jack Perry, but only scored four points in the next 11:05. Eastern was at 54.1 percent from the field at that point and had made 9-of-16 3-pointers (56.3 percent). The Eagles were just 2-of-16 overall and missed all seven of its 3-pointers during that 28-4 Montana run, as the Grizzlies took a 71-54 lead with 3:33 to play.

Top Performers . . .
* Eastern all-time leading scorer Bogdan Bliznyuk finished with 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting overall and 1-of-1 from the 3-point stripe. He has had 31 double-figure scoring performances in 34 games this season and 99 in his 137-game career.
* Redshirt freshman Jacob Davison finished with 16 points for the second-straight game, and shared team-high honors with Bliznyuk with seven rebounds. It was his 10th performance of the season scoring in double figures.
* Sophomore Mason Peatling had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field and finished with four rebounds. He has scored in double figures 11 times this season and 15 times in his career, and has had at least 10 boards on six occasions both this season and in his career.
Key Stats . . .

* The Eagles had had 50-percent shooting performances in six of their last eight games to improve to 12-0 this season when they hit that mark. But EWU dipped to 45.0 percent against the Grizzlies. Eastern made a season-best 64.6 percent in the semifinals against Southern Utah, besting the previous best of 57.1 percent at Sacramento State on Feb. 1. One day earlier, EWU sank 52.0 percent in its quarterfinal win over Portland State. For the season, Eastern is now 18-2 when they out-shoot their opponents and 2-12 when they don't. Eastern has had all 12 of its 50-percent shooting nights in the last 22 games.

Other Team Highlights . . .
* At 20-14 on the season, the Eastern basketball program has hit a threshold that has occurred just four times now in Eastern's 35-year history in NCAA Division I. Since 1983-84, the only other times EWU has won 20 games came in 1985-86 (20-8), 2014-15 (26-9) and last year in 2016-17 (22-12). This year's team is just one of six in the school's 35-year NCAA Division I history to have at least 18, including the last four seasons in a row.
* Although it was ended versus the Grizzlies, Eastern had its first eight-game winning streak since winning 11 in a row in the 2003-04 NCAA Tournament season. Bogdan Bliznyuk led Eastern during that winning streak by averaging 25.3 points on 60.3 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. But it's the play of a trio of underclassmen making the biggest difference for EWU during the streak. Redshirt freshman Jacob Davison has averaged 11.3 points, true freshman Jack Perry has averaged 9.9 points, and sophomore Mason Peatling has averages of 9.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots.
* Fourth-year seniors Bogdan Bliznyuk and Sir Washington both played in EWU's 2015 NCAA Tournament game versus Georgetown. Bliznyuk finished with a record 10 games of Big Sky Tournament experience, and Eastern was 8-2 in his four seasons as an Eagle. Washington played in seven games, but was injured and didn't play in 2015. In those 10 games, Bliznyuk averaged 19.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in the league tournament. Besides his 32 points against Southern Utah and 35 points against Portland State in 2018, he scored 32 points with eight rebounds in the 2017 semifinals versus Weber State, and had 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists in the quarterfinals against Sac State. Washington averaged 4.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists in the seven tourney games he played, including an 11-point effort last year versus the Hornets and seven this year versus PSU. Eastern went on to lose to Georgetown 84-74 in the NCAA Tournament, with Bliznyuk finishing with 11 points, six rebounds and a pair of assists after earning Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors. Washington missed the Big Sky Tournament with an injury, but was 2-of-2 from the field and 2-of-2 from the free line to finish with six points and a pair of rebounds in five minutes against the Hoyas.
* Head coach Shantay Legans has coached in three Big Sky Conference Tournament games as a head coach and 10 as an assistant, with a record of 8-5 in five appearances. Eastern's 2014-15 squad won the title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament with a trio of victories in Missoula, Montana. Included was a come-from-behind 69-65 over the host Grizzlies in the championship game.
Notables . . .
* First-year head coach Shantay Legans is the 18th coach in Eastern history, and has made history of his own. His 20 wins is the most by a first-year Eastern coach in EWU's NCAA Division I era, besting Ray Giacoletti with 17 in the 2000-01 season. Joe Folda also won 17 games in 1982-83 as an interim head coach during Eastern's rise from NAIA to NCAA Division I. Thus, you have to go back to the 1942-43 season when Bob Brumblay won 27 games in his debut season to find a rookie Eastern coach with more than 18 victories, which is also the only time it's happened. Legans was a an Eastern assistant for eight years before becoming EWU's 10th coach at the NCAA Division I level this season. Legans spent six years on the staff of Jim Hayford (now head coach at Seattle), and two previous seasons under former head coach Kirk Earlywine (now an assistant at Idaho). Legans was associate head coach under Hayford for the final three of those eight seasons. He has been a part of Eastern teams from the 2013-14 through 2017-18 seasons which have win totals of 15, 26, 18, 22 and 20 games. The three 20-victory seasons are the top three win totals in EWU's 35-year history in NCAA Division I (Eastern also won 20 games in 1985-86). The combined 101 wins in five seasons, 85 victories in four seasons, 66 in three and 44 in two are also the most since EWU became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season. The same can be said of EWU's stretch of league victories -- 10, 14, 10, 13, 13 -- in that five-year span. A former player at Cal and Fresno State, Legans is married to former Eastern women's basketball player Tatjana Sparavalo. Their daughter, Zola Lee, was born June 16, 2016, and they have a son due to be born later March 29.
* Seniors Bogdan Bliznyuk and Sir Washington will end their careers as EWU's winningest players in EWU's 35-year history as a member of NCAA Division I. Eastern has won 86 games overall and 50 in the Big Sky Conference. Washington redshirted in the 2013-14 season, then they both played as freshmen in 2014-15. Eastern has won 26, 18, 22 and 20 games since then for the best four-year stretch in EWU's Division I history, and most since winning 106 from 1942-43 to 1945-46. The Eagles have had Big Sky Conference win totals of 14, 10, 13 and 13 since Washington and Bliznyuk were freshman – again, the best four-game stretch in 31 seasons as a member of the Big Sky. Former Eagle Felix Von Hofe was formerly the winningest Eagle with 81 overall wins and 47 league wins from 2013-14 through 2016-17.
* The Eagles beat every Big Sky team other than second-seeded Idaho this season, and finished third after being predicted to finish sixth by the media and seventh by the coaches in the league's preseason polls. Included in this year's league triumphs was the school's first road sweep in two years in late February, including a win over Weber State to give EWU a tiebreaker advantage in the league. Eastern snapped the nine-game winning streak of the Wildcats, and one game earlier handed regular season champion Montana its first league loss after 13 victories. 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.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Continuing Season: "I'm crossing my fingers – I hope we aren't finished. Twenty wins is a great season and we deserve to play more. If we do get invited to the postseason we're going to take it, have fun and we will go out there and try to win it. We have a really solid team and I want them to play more in March. I want our younger players to get experience and I want Bogdan and our seniors to go out on a high note. Whatever we do, I want to go out and do it and do it big. I want to win it and I want to keep pushing forward with our team."
On Montana Loss: "They did a great job of defending Bogdan, but they also did a great job of helping. When we had the opportunities to make some shots, we didn't make them. It came down to making shots and we didn't, so we came up a little short. We shot the ball well in the first half, but when you go 1-of-11 from three in the second half with open looks, that what's happens. They kept sucking in and daring us to shoot those shots and we missed them. All the credit goes to Montana – they played a great defensive game in the second half."
On Underclassmen: "Our young guys are going to learn from this and they'll come out and do a great job next season. We'll get back here next year because I know we'll have a good team. We'll miss our seniors, but I'm looking forward to getting back to this same exact position and playing this same exact team."
On 2018-19 Season: "We have a lot of firepower coming back. I'm excited about our team coming back and next year's chances in the Big Sky. I'm going to miss coaching this team – my first year has been amazing. But at the same time I can't wait until we move forward toward next year."