A must-win game in January?
Some say there’s no such thing, but Laron Griffin would beg to differ after the Eagles’ deflating 74-60 loss Thursday night against visiting Montana.
Instead of jockeying for playoff position in the Big Sky tournament, the Eagles have to get back on the horse Saturday night against Montana State. Eastern has lost four straight, including its last three conference games and its last two at Reese Court.
“It’s the most important game of my career, and I’ve only got nine left,” said Griffin, whose 12 points and eight rebounds helped fuel a strong EWU rally that withered midway through the second half. “We need this one, though, we need it.”
On Thursday, before a season-high crowd of 3,512, the Eagles needed some decent outside shooting against a tall Montana lineup that blocked two inside shots in the first 2 minutes of the game.
They didn’t get it, missing 12 of their first shots from the field. They stayed in the game at the foul line, hitting 17 of 24 chances, but gave up 13 fastbreak points as the Grizzlies led 40-27 at halftime.
“The story of this game is the first half - getting down 14-15 points - that’s the difference on the scoreboard at the end of the night,” said EWU Coach Jim Hayford.
Collin Chiverton, who led all scorers with 22, and Griffin carried the game to the Grizzlies early in the second half. EWU hit nine of its first 12 shots in the half and pulled to within 46-45 barely 4 minutes after intermission.
The crowd suddenly came alive and Montana coach Wayne Tinkle furiously called a timeout.
“Coach emphasizes playing hard and to not give up,” Griffin said. “Basically we had to come out and get advantage on them, slowly but surely.”
But momentum seemed to turn against the Eagles a few moments later. EWU trailed 48-45 with 14:12 to play, and after missed shots by both sides and a scramble, EWU guard Cliff Collimon lost the ball out of bounds and Montana began to pull away.
Collimon struggled, shooting 2 for 12 from the field and turning the ball over seven times.
Cliff Ederaine posted his fourth double-double of the year, scoring 10 points and grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds.
Art Steward led the Grizzlies with 19 points and five assists, and guard Kaareem Jamar added 15 points and seven assists. Montana guard Shawn Stockton scored eight points, just two below his career high.
The loss drops EWU to 9-12 overall and 3-5 in the Big Sky, four games behind the second-place Grizzlies. The top sixo teams in the final standings qualify for the Big Sky tournament. EWU is now tied with Northern Colorado for sixth place.
The win keeps Montana (7-1 in the Big Sky and 14-6 overall) in second place, one game behind Weber State.
Eastern beat Montana State 82-66 last month in Bozeman, but the Bobcats have lost only once since then, to first-place Weber State. MSU won 70-65 at Portland State on Thursday to improve to 6-2 in the Big Sky and 11-8 overall.
“It’s going to take a really good effort to beat Montana State,” Hayford added. “We have to find the right balance within the next 48 hours, get fresh legs and correct some mistakes.”
Montana played a complete game, starting with 7-foot post Derek Selvig hitting two long 3-pointers as the Griz took an early 11-4 lead. The Grizzlies shot 50 percent from the field in the half and 46 percent for the night.
EWU was 18 for 53 from the field, or 34 percent.