MISSOULA – Eastern Washington University suffered through another one of those dreadful halves against Montana here Friday afternoon, and it cost the Eagles an excellent chance to secure their first Big Sky Conference men’s basketball road sweep in eight years.
Leading by nine points shortly after intermission, Eastern slipped into an all-too- familiar offensive funk, scoring just one point over a 7 1/2-minute span.
That lapse let UM loose on a 15-1 run that proved too much for the Eagles to overcome, and propelled the Grizzlies to a 79-71 win at Dahlberg Arena.
Mathias Ward scored a game- and career-high 28 points and Will Cherry added 22 for Montana (9-5, 2-0 Big Sky), which overcame a 41-36 halftime deficit and withstood one last charge by EWU (7-7, 1-1) to give coach Wayne Tinkle his 100th career victory.
The Eagles, who got 26 points from Cliff Colimon – 19 in the first half – and 14 from sixth-man Tremayne Johnson, shot 64 percent (16 of 25) in the first 20 minutes. The Eagles led 47-38 after Laron Griffin scored the third of Eastern’s three quick second-half buckets with just more than 18 minutes left in the game.
But a Cliff Ederaine free throw was all the Eagles would get until Griffin converted on a pair of free throws with just less than 10 1/2 minutes remaining. By then, Montana was up 58-50.
Eastern, which opened Big Sky play with an 82-66 road win over Montana State on Wednesday night, shot 27.3 percent (9 of 33) after intermission, and made only 1 of 13 3-point tries.
“That second half looked like a few of the other halves we’ve had,” Eagles coach Jim Hayford said. “I don’t know if it was the second half of the second (game) on the road, or not. But I think the first place you have to go is to credit Montana’s defense.”
Despite its second-half shooting woes, Eastern managed to pull with 65-64 on a 3-pointer by Colimon with 5:21 left. The Eagles still had a chance to make things interesting in the final minute when Johnson got an open look at another 3-pointer only to watch it bounce off the rim, preserving UM’s 72-67 lead.
The Grizzlies hit six free throws down the stretch to maintain their advantage.
“Give credit to Montana,” Hayford said. “It was a great ballgame, and they found a way to win it. But I’m so proud of my guys. They’re giving it everything they have.”
The Eagles return home Thursday to take on BSC preseason favorite Weber State in a game that tips off at 6 p.m. at Reese Court.