RENO, Nevada – Seeds of doubt? Not for Eastern Washington.
On a day when the favorites played down to the level of the competition, the Eagles elevated their game to new heights Thursday night.
Seizing the momentum from the opening tip, Eastern rode a dominant first half to a 78-72 win over Portland State and a spot in the Big Sky Tournament Conference semifinals.
“We came out with a lot of energy, and we’ve been doing that a lot lately,” coach Shantay Legans said. “I couldn’t be a happier coach.”
Eastern didn’t exactly coast to its 19th win of the season. The Eagles led by 18 with 6 1/2 minutes left, but PSU closed to within four with 1:12 left.
The clincher came from none other than Big Sky Most Valuable Player Bogdan Bliznyuk, who drove the lane for a three-point play that put Eastern ahead 77-68 with 37 seconds left.
The Eagles will face another hungry team, 10th-seeded Southern Utah, for a chance to play Saturday for an NCAA Tournament berth.
It’s huge because we get to advance,” Legans said.
Earlier in the day, regular-season champ Montana struggled past North Dakota, fourth-seeded Weber State fell to Northern Colorado and No. 2 Idaho was shot out of the Reno Events Center by Southern Utah.
None of the seeded teams showed the poise of the Eagles, whose confidence was tempered by a 13-point loss to the Vikings in their last meeting on Feb. 4 in Portland.
Struggling against PSU’s pressure in that game, the Eagles had no such problems on Thursday. They committed eight turnovers in the half but forced 11.
Seven of them came during a remarkable stretch late in the half, as PSU went 9:51 without a field goal.
That helped Eastern on a 12-0 run that turned a seven-point lead into a 40-21 bulge late in the half.
Eastern led 43-27 at halftime.
Playing in their first game since Senior Day five days earlier, the Eagles looked anything but lethargic in the first half.
They shot 52 percent from the field and better – 7 for 12, or 58 percent – from long range.
Bliznyuk was at his most efficient, attempting just four shots yet finishing the half with 16 points.
He finished with a game-high 35, leaving him seven points short of the Big Sky career scoring mark of Orlando Lightfoot.
The only downer: Bliznyuk missed a foul shot late in the half, breaking a string of 77 and falling eight shots short of the Division I career record of 85 set over three seasons by Darnell Archey of Butler from 2001-03.
Eastern and PSU played to a standoff for most of the second half, with the lead growing to 20 before PSU cut it to 60-46 with 12 minutes left.
The lead reached 20 a few moments later, but PSU (20-13) clawed back into the game by forcing turnovers and hitting some tough 3-point shots.
Next up is Southern Utah, which is full of confidence after a 92-78 win over second-seeded Idaho.
Eastern and Southern Utah are only eight days removed from their last meeting, a 74-51 romp by the Eagles at Reese Court.
The Eagles lost in the first meeting, 66-62 in overtime on Jan. 20.
The Eagles haven’t forgotten.
“We’ve got to be prepared for them,” Legans said.
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