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Eastern Washington, Montana match up for first time since Big Sky championship

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 9, 2019, 11:04 p.m.

Eastern Washington guard Cody Benzel fires up a 3-pointer over Wisconsin Green Bay guard Jevon Smith  on Nov. 16  in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington guard Cody Benzel fires up a 3-pointer over Wisconsin Green Bay guard Jevon Smith on Nov. 16 in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The last time Eastern Washington faced rival Montana, the Eagles were denied an NCAA Tournament berth.

EWU isn’t looking to avenge the Big Sky Conference Tournament title-game loss when it plays host to the Grizzlies on Thursday at Reese Court as much it’s trying to shake off one of its slowest starts in recent history.

The Eagles (3-12, 1-3 Big Sky) believe a win over preseason conference favorite Montana (10-5, 3-1) can get their injury-riddled season on track.

The Grizzlies return the bulk of their roster from last year’s Big Sky regular-season and tournament-championship team, including standout guards Ahmaad Rorie (15.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game) and Michael Oguine (13.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 2.0 apg).

Inside, Montana goes to 6-foot-8 Jamar Akoh (16.6 points, 9.1 rebounds).

“He carves up a lot of space inside, so it will be a fun game to watch (EWU forward Mason Peatling) go against (Akoh),” EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “I think they are premier big men in the league, so it will be fun to see them go at each other. (Sayeed) Pridgett can do a lot of things and get to the basket. They have some size and good guards, but our players will step up to the challenge.”

EWU and Montana often split their conference games, including last season when the Eagles clipped the Grizzlies 74-65 in Cheney, spoiling their 13-0 start, before falling 82-65 in the tournament championship.

Former Ferris High guard Cody Benzel said he always looks forward to facing Montana. Since the schools didn’t play each other in football this past fall because of conference scheduling, he expects a raucous home environment.

“It’s the game that’s always on TV and in the newspaper,” Benzel said. “Usually a good crowd, so hopefully the crowd is popping for this one.

“This is a big game for us. We need to protect our home court and get things back on track.”

The Eagles are winless on the road and split their last Big Sky home swing, falling to Weber State 84-72 and beating Idaho State 65-55.

Portland State upset Montana 77-74 on Saturday in Missoula, snapping the Grlizzlies’ 20-game home winning streak.

EWU and Montana have two common opponents, South Dakota State and North Dakota State. EWU fell 74-67 at NDSU and 74-65 to SDSU in Cheney. Montana beat NDSU 60-53 and downed SDSU 85-74, snapping the Jackrabbits’ 26-game home winning streak.

Eagles forward Jesse Hunt (14.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists) lauded Montana.

“Montana is a great team, so that’s going to be a fun game,” Hunt said. “Last year, I got hurt both times we played them, so I’m ready to come out with a little more fire against them this year.”

EWU returns the majority of its players from last season’s 20-win team that made a run to the conference title game, but it lost the conference’s all-time leading scorer and Big Sky Most Valuable Player, Bogdan Bliznyuk, to graduation.

This season, the Eagles rank No. 323 in NCAA Division I scoring (66.1 points per game), but they played the first half of their season against a handful of Top 25 teams and without the services of Peatling.

Since Peatling’s recent return from injury in late December, he’s averaged 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Montana head coach Travis Decuire expects the Eagles to work the ball inside to Peatling and Hunt.

“They’re back to where they were three years ago where they’re going inside,” DeCuire said. “Their size is their strength. The ball goes inside a lot, and they still shoot 3s at a good percentage, but it’s usually coming back out. The game won’t be as up-tempo as the Portland State game was.”

Legans, whose team was picked fourth in both Big Sky preseason polls, has used four starting lineups the last six games, trying to find the right mix.

EWU will get a long layoff before playing host to Montana State (6-8, 3-1) on Jan. 19.

“I expect to win the games, they’re at home” Legans said. “You go through our record and say, ‘Oh, these guys are beat up, they’re getting healthy and trying,’ but we expect to go out and win every game we play.

“To have guys like Jesse, Mason and Ty (Gibson) back and come through for us will be huge.”

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