RENO, Nevada – Momentum was seldom this fickle, or this cruel.
As the Montana fight song blared and confetti rained down, the Eastern Washington players plodded off the court to ponder what went wrong.
Moments later, coach Shantay Legans paced outside the locker room, hands tight on his head as he searched for for the right words.
There were none, not after the Eagles lost an 11-point halftime lead and eventually the Big Sky Conference title, 82-65, Saturday night at the Reno Events Center.
When the words finally came, in the postgame press conference, they were full of self-doubt.
Legans never blamed the players, only himself.
“I didn’t put them in the right position to win,” Legans said after the Eagles were outscored 53-25 in the second half.
“It didn’t come out the way I expected it … but with these guys I have to take a look at myself and wonder what could have been.”
What could have been was a chance to send off seniors Bogdan Bliznyuk and Sir Washington with another trip to the NCAA Tournament. A 20-14 record should put them in another postseason tournament – the Eagles will learn their fate on Sunday – but the big prize was ripped from their hands in the second half.
Playing with a lead the entire week, Eastern was ahead 40-29 at halftime against the top-seeded Griz.
But Montana (26-7) drained three 3-pointers in the first two minutes after halftime, tightening the game at both ends of the floor.
Eastern seemed to feel the tension as Montana picked up the defensive intensity. Bliznyuk felt it most with frequent double-teams that changed in a bewildering pattern.
“I’m not sure what happened,” said Bliznyuk, who was held to 15 points on 7-for-14 shooting. “I’m going to have to look at the film.”
Legans didn’t need to. It will show his shooters getting the same looks they enjoyed in the first half, but going just 1 for 11 from outside the arc.
“They did a great job of defending Bogdan, but they also did a great job of helping,” Legans said. “When we had the opportunities to make some shots, we didn’t make them.”
Soon the momentum pulled away from the Eagles like a freight train.
Jack Perry hit a 3-pointer from the top, giving Eastern a 50-43 lead and seemingly halting the slide with 14 1/2 minutes left.
But on came the Grizzlies, who stepped up the defensive energy another notch. Eastern managed just two layups, both from Bliznyuk, over the next 11 minutes.
By the time Peatling hit a layin with 3:33 to play, the Eagles were down 71-54 and the Montana celebration was beginning.
“We shot the ball well in the first half, but when you go 1 for 11 from 3 in the second half with open looks, that what’s happens,” Legans said.
“They kept sucking in and daring us to shoot those shots, and we missed them. All the credit goes to Montana – they played a great defensive game in the second half.”
The first half played out in opposite fashion.
The Eagles found themselves down 14-10 before Bliznyuk scored his first points on a runner. Eastern trailed 17-12 after Montana’s Bobby Moorehead drained a 3 from the top of the arc, but Eastern tied the game on a 3 from Bliznyuk and layin by Benas Griciunas.
Trailing 25-23, Eastern made its best run of the half by outscoring the Griz 17-4 to take a 40-29 lead into intermission.
The biggest weapon was Davison, who made the Griz pay dearly for double-teaming Bliznyuk. The redshirt freshman hit 4 of 5 shots in the first half and went 3 of 3 from beyond the arc for a game-high 11 points at the break.
Despite having the hot hand, Davison didn’t return until 5 minutes into the second half. Legans said that’s just part of the rotation.
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