MISSOULA – For the Eastern Washington players and fans, the Big Dance began Saturday night at center court in Dahlberg Arena.
It’s the place where other Eagles teams had foundered under the pressure of Montana’s hard-nosed defense and its raucous crowd, which even booed the Eastern mascot during warm-ups.
Not this time. Not even after the worst-shooting half of the season, not after falling behind by 11 points with barely 6 minutes to play and with 7,026 Montana fans in full roar.
Instead, the Eagles showed the same been-there, done-that attitude that’s carried them to the best season in modern school history. This time it pushed them past Montana to a dramatic 69-65 victory that gave them the Big Sky Conference tournament championship and Eastern’s second trip to the NCAA tourney.
“We’re a big family and we never think we’re out of a game,” said point guard Drew Brandon, whose two foul shots with 6 seconds left clinched the game for the Eagles.
Seconds after the game ended, Eastern fans poured from the stands, confetti rained down, and within minutes the Eagles had the place to themselves. Players clutched the trophy, each other and the reality of a special moment in the school’s athletic history.
“It’s just a dream come true,” said Tyler Harvey, who scored 19 points and led Eastern’s improbable comeback in the last 6 minutes. “We’ve worked so hard to get to this point.”
The Eagles (26-8) also had worked themselves out of enough trouble this year to get through one more tough situation. Trailing most of the game, they were seemingly out of it with 6:15 to play. Trailing 59-48, coach Jim Hayford called timeout.
“We were down 11 and looked dead in the water,” Hayford said. “We called timeout, but we’ve been there before. I said, ‘let’s do this – let’s play to win. Let’s put the pressure on them and start playing not to lose.’”
It was a comeback fashioned from thin air – amazing considering how thick the atmosphere was at Dahlberg Arena. The Eagles clawed back, but were still down nine points after Montana center Martin Breunig scored the last of his game-high 23 points on a layin with 4:15 left.
“That energy (at the end of the game) helped give us some more offensive efficiency and the ball started going in,” Hayford said. “We were able to manage the clock with what timeouts we did have, and scored out of those.”
The points soon came in rapid succession for the Eagles: a layup from Venky Jois, a 3-pointer from Harvey, and – after a missed jumper by Breunig – a driving layup from Harvey and a 3 from Felix Von Hofe that gave Eastern its first lead since early in the game.
With 1:58 to play, Montana guard Jordan Gregory gave Montana a 63-62 lead – its last, as it turned out.
Drew Brandon answered 25 seconds later with a layup that gave Eastern the lead for good, then stole the ball to set up Harvey for a 3-point play that gave the Eagles a 67-63 lead with 43 seconds left.
After an exchange of possessions, Gregory missed a 3-point shot, the ball went out of bounds and Brandon was fouled with 6 seconds remaining. The party could begin.
“We’ve been fighting all year,” Brandon said, recalling recent gut-check wins over Weber State (in the Big Sky regular-season finale) and Idaho (on Thursday).
“We just believe in ourselves, every day,” Harvey said.
That belief must have been tested in the first half, when the Eagles made just 8 of 28 shots from the field, including 1 of 8 on 3-point attempts.
Montana slowed the tempo from the start, and picked up the Eagle shooters up high. Ognen Miljkovic gave Eastern a 9-3 lead with a nice scoop shot, but the Eagles missed several layups.
They still led 13-9 midway through the half and had a chance for more when Harvey stole the ball and drove for a lay-in. But Montana’s Mario Dunn made a great defensive play blocking the shot and seemingly igniting the Grizzlies on both ends of the court.
After Bliznyuk made the Eagles’ only 3-pointer with 8:29 left, the Griz held Eastern without a field goal for almost 5 minutes. A 15-3 run was highlighted by a pair of three-point plays from Breunig, who had 13 points by halftime.
Despite all that, the Eagles trailed just 30-29 at intermission.
“It was an improbable comeback, but it just shows the character of this team,” Hayford said.
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