RENO, Nevada – The scene plays out at least a dozen times in every Eastern Washington basketball game.
There’s Bogdan Blizyuk, dribbling deep in the paint with his back to the basket. Defenders are on each flank, with the same thought:
Will he try the spin move and slide to the right for a layin? Or fake the spin move and settle for the fadeaway jumper?
Either way, Bliznyuk is the surest thing in the Big Sky Conference, the basketball version of another lightly recruited Eagle by the name of Cooper Kupp.
Bliznyuk is the epitome of sure-and-steady wins the race, on the court and in the classroom – even if he started a few laps behind.
That’s the legacy Bliznyuk will leave at Eastern Washington.
It has less to do with the school scoring record – 2,060 points and counting – than the hard work that went into it, less about the destination than the journey.
It began half a world away in Ukraine, an immigrant’s tale full of sacrifice by Bliznyuk’s family after his father died in an auto accident when Bogdan was 2 years old.
He was 7 when the family emigrated to the Puget Sound area to be closer to relatives. Mother Lyudmila worked as a caregiver and older brother Dima quit high school and worked construction jobs to keep food on the table.
“He was always there for me, because that’s what you do for family,” Bliznyuk said of Dima.
Dima also kept Bogdan in tennis shoes – size 14 1/2, as outsized as his dreams and the hard work that went into them.
Bliznyuk went from pickup ball at a community center to AAU leagues to Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way, where he averaged almost 20 points a game and carried a 3.8 grade-point average – a tough double-double when English isn’t your first language.
In the fall of 2014, those abilities took him to Eastern, where he came off the bench as a true freshman. It took time for Bliznyuk to acclimate to the college game. In 11 games against Division I opponents, he averaged less than two points.
The switch flipped with the conference season. At season’s end, the Eagles were in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history and Bliznyuk was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year.
Three years later, this is Bliznyuk’s team. Despite a brutal preseason schedule that took them away from home for six weeks, the Eagles are 18-13 going into Thursday’s Big Sky quarterfinal game against Portland State.
The Eagles are winning not with rainbow 3-pointers and slam dunks of Tyler Harvey and Venky Jois, but with the little things Bliznyuk does best: footwork, a practiced feel for the half-court game, peripheral vision to spot his shooters when the double team closes in.
“I work hard at my craft,” Bliznyuk has said more than once.
It all came together last weekend in Cheney on a Senior Day that Bliznyuk couldn’t have imagined four years ago.
During that day, his mother and brother helped him soak in the moment and dry off the tears.
Almost poetically, all the hard work was repaid in the final moments of Bliznyuk’s final home game.
With less than 4 minutes left and the Eagles up by 30 on Northern Arizona, Bliznyuk drove the lane again and was fouled.
As thousands watched, Bliznyuk drained both free throws to break the 17-year-old NCAA record for consecutive free throws made at 74. Those were his final points at Reese Court, one more reward for thousands of hours of work.
And one more part of a legacy.
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