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Eastern Washington basketball seeks statement win against conference-leading Montana

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 14, 2018, 4:42 p.m.

Eastern Washington University basketball coach Shantay Legans leads his team against Idaho on  Jan. 12 in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington University basketball coach Shantay Legans leads his team against Idaho on Jan. 12 in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

One team is sure to make a big statement Thursday night at Reese Court.

The Montana Grizzlies are threatening to run away from the field in Big Sky Conference men’s basketball, and another win would just about seal the regular-season title.

Meanwhile, Eastern Washington has lost two consecutive games for the first time since mid-November.

With the Big Sky Tournament less than three weeks away, a win over the league leaders would restore some needed momentum.

“We’re fighting, and we are going to fight tooth and nail,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans, whose club is 12-13 overall and 7-5 in the Big Sky.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Legans added. “Fans need to come out and watch because it’s a fun style of basketball, and our guys deserve it.”

The Eagles are drawing an average of only 1,905 in five Big Sky home games, but the crowd should be bigger and badder for what figures to be the best team to play at Reese Court this season.

Of course it’s Montana, Eastern’s biggest rival even if the conference decided otherwise in football.

Picked to finish third in the Big Sky Conference, the Griz (20-5, 13-0) have had their share of close calls but are finding a way under fourth-year coach Travis DeCuire.

“They’re playing great defense, they’re turning people over and they’re rebounding on offense,” Legans said.

“We’re going to have to do a good job of getting back in transition.”

That transition will be mental as well following last week’s 66-64 loss at Idaho.

“We have very high-character kids and we have good leadership,” Legans said. “They’re already pumped up.”

The Eagles also may get a boost from forward Jesse Hunt, who practiced this week for the first time in five weeks following a foot injury.

That could take some of the pressure off senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, whose scoring average of 19.9 points per game is almost as much as the next three Eagles (Cody Benzel, 7.4 ppg; Ty Gibson, 7.0; and Sir Washington, 6.6) combined.

Already the leading scorer in EWU history with 1,925 points, Bliznyuk is in eighth place on the Big Sky list. A 20-point night against the Griz would catapult him to fifth, ahead of Steve Conner of Boise State, Steve Hayes of Idaho State and Damian Lillard of Weber State.

The Griz are waiting.

“It’s going to be heavy on Bogdan,” said Rachi Wortham, a Montana assistant who coached at Eastern in 2007-11 under Kirk Earlywine.

“He likes to spread you out, and then they have phenomenal shooters in the corners. You want to help on Bogdan, but you also can’t leave your guy.”

The Eagles are getting solid outside shooting (37.3 percent in the last three games).

In particular, Benzel is coming off back-to-back, double-digit scoring games at Portland State and Idaho while shooting 13 for 21 from beyond the arc.

Despite its record, Montana has had its share of close calls. The Grizzlies are coming off a 71-69 overtime win over visiting Sacramento State.

The Grizzles are led by guard Ahaad Rorie, whose 17.2 scoring average ranks eighth in the Big Sky. Rorie also averages 3.5 assists.

Eastern hosts Montana State on Saturday at 2 p.m.


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