Shantay Legans said it all week, and he said it again Thursday night:
This wasn’t about beating Montana, but making a statement.
Eastern Washington did both before a big crowd at Reese Court, making clutch plays in the final minutes to beat the Grizzlies 74-65 in Legans’ biggest win as a first-year head coach.
The winning formula wasn’t complex – “We were going to use the high ball screen and go make plays,” Legans said – and the Eagles did just that to end Montana’s 13-game winning streak.
“Our guys stepped up – it was a full team effort,” Legans said. “They played with passion and energy today, and it was fun watching them play.”
As usual, the offense ran off forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, who scored a game-high 19 points despite drawing double-teams almost every time he touched the ball.
Along the way Bliznyuk become the fifth-leading scorer in Big Sky history, passing the likes of Steve Conner of Boise State, Steve Hayes of Idaho State and Damian Lillard of Weber State.
When Bliznyuk was compelled to give up the ball, the Eagles got help from some unlikely heroes. In the first half, it was center Benas Griciunas, who spurred an early rally and had 12 points at intermission on 6-for-6 shooting.
In the second half, it was forward Mason Peatling and especially redshirt freshman guard Jacob Davison, who had 12 points in 16 minutes.
“He’s a freshman and they go up and down, but he’s been playing great in practice,” Legans said. “His last four games he’s been playing terrific for us.”
This time Davison took center stage on front of a crowd of 2,354, the biggest this year at Reese.
With 7 minutes left and the Eagles clinging to a 54-51 lead, Davison hit a short jumper. At the 3 1/2- minute mark, the Eagles were up five but struggled to break the Montana press.
Peatling snagged the ball in the frontcourt and whipped the ball to Davison, who drained a 3-pointer to make it 67-59.
Montana’s last chance came with 2 minutes left, but Davison answered with a clutch floater to all but seal the deal and improve Eastern’s record to 13-13 overall and 8-5 in the Big Sky.
“It was tough last year having to redshirt,” Davison said. “I’m a competitor and I want to play, so being a part of a big win is an unbelievable feeling.”
The win left the Eagles alone in fourth place going into Saturday’s home game against Montana State, which fell Thursday at Idaho 88-78.
The Griz, who were bidding to match a school-record 14-game winning streak, fell to 20-6 overall and 13-1 in the conference.
Eastern led the entire second half, but never by double digits until the final minutes.
“They are well-coached and kept coming back play after play,” Legans said. “But our players did a great job of making big plays and we did a good job on the glass.
“(We accomplished) everything we went over defensively and offensively. We tried our best to keep them off the boards, but it’s hard to do that.”
Actually, the Eagles more than held their own on the glass in the first half, outrebounding the Griz 17-10 while shooting 16 for 26 (61.5 percent) from the field.
Given that, their 35-32 halftime lead should have been bigger, but the Eagles were 2 for 8 from long range and had six turnovers.
The script flipped in the second half, as Montana – which was 5 for 12 from 3-point range in the first half – made just 1 of 10 in the second.
Eastern gave up the ball on nine more occasions after intermission, but was 5 of 8 from beyond the arc.
The Eagles also forced a few turnovers against a team that came in with a plus-3.6 turnover margin. The final tally was 15-all.
The Griz had three players in double figures, led by Ahmaad Rorie with 18.
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