Grizzlies show why they’re on top in the Big Sky
The “Our House” T-shirts were a very, very, very fine idea.
The timing? Not so much.
Not with leading scorer and rebounder Venky Jois out with a sprained ankle, and definitely not against Big Sky Conference leader Montana, which whitewashed Eastern Washington 65-46 Saturday night at Reese Court.
“What today clearly showed is that Montana is the class of the league,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford, who fielded his 10th different lineup of the season against a program that’s dominated the Sky like few others.
Saturday’s win was the Grizzlies’ 23rd straight in conference play, one shy of the record set by Weber State in 1970. It also kept Montana two games in front of the pack and on track to host the conference tournament on March 14-16.
“For us to win this game, we would have needed every guy to play at the top of his game,” said Hayford, who hopes to have Jois back for Thursday’s game at Sacramento State.
Against Montana, the Eagles (4-8 in the Big Sky and 6-16 overall) defied the odds for 5 minutes, connecting on a trio of three-pointers for an 11-2 lead before a season-high home crowd of 2,732.
Eastern still led 14-9 with 13:31 left in the half, but failed to score over the next 9 minutes while Montana reeled off 19 straight points.
“We’re a team of runs,” Hayford said. “You saw us at our best and at our worst.”
When the gauge reached empty sooner than expected, Hayford tried to break the momentum with timeouts, defensive changes, and “going to our go-to players,” with few good results. By the time Thomas Reuter ended the drought with a short jumper with 4:24 left, the Eagles were down by 14 points.
“Sometimes you get so amped up and you spend a lot of fuel, and then a lull comes,” Hayford said. “That’s what happened.”
Trailing 30-18 at halftime, Eastern came out strong in the second half and cut the Montana lead to 34-26 on a free throw by Parker Kelly. Kevin Winford’s free throw put the Eagles within 10 with 13:37 left, but Montana pulled away and never led by less than a dozen points the rest of the way.
The Grizzlies (12-0 in the Big Sky and 16-4 overall) accomplished that mostly through defense, holding Eastern to its lowest scoring total of the season. The Eagles were 18 for 48 from the field and just 4 for 16 from long range.
“The key was (Collin) Chiverton and Kelly from behind the arc,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. “We thought we couldn’t give those guys looks, and we were going to try to force them to beat us from 15-18 feet.”
It didn’t help that Eastern hit just 6 of 13 free throws, committed 16 turnovers and got only five points from an ever-shrinking bench while playing its fourth game in 10 days.
Reuter played 32 minutes and led the Eagles with 11 points. Kelly had nine points and seven rebounds and played all but 6 minutes. Winford also played 34 minutes and scored eight points along with five assists.
The deep, talented Grizzlies had four players in double figures, including guard Will Cherry and forward Mathias Ward with 13 each. Montana was 24 for 52 from the field.
Meanwhile, Eastern is still without starting guard Jeffrey Forbes, who suffered a cut hand against Northern Colorado on Jan. 19.
“I was really worried about how much we had left, and being short-handed,” Hayford said, trying to look at the big picture.
That includes two wins earlier this week against Portland State and Montana State – good enough for eighth place in the standings and just one game out of a spot in the Big Sky tournament.
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