It all felt so right Thursday night for Eastern Washington.
Forgotten were the aches and pains, the recent shooting slump, the self-doubt. All were swept away, along with the Montana State Bobcats, in a 92-68 Big Sky Conference blowout at Reese Court.
The Eagles unlimbered in the first half and unloaded in the second, cruising to their most lopsided conference win of the year. For a team that had lost two of its previous three games, this was the perfect time to make a statement ahead of Saturday’s crucial game with Montana.
“We looked a lot like the team I saw in December and early January,” said coach Jim Hayford, whose team improved to 21-7 overall and 12-3 in the Big Sky.
That’s good for a first-place tie with idle Sacramento State, which faces a tricky road game Saturday night at Portland State.
The Eagles’ inside-outside game worked nearly to perfection in the first 8 minutes of the second half, turning an eight-point halftime lead into a 67-41 blowout. Along the way, forward Venky Jois had 27 points and 11 rebounds, while national scoring leader Tyler Harvey scored 20 in 30 minutes.
Point guard Drew Brandon contributed another stellar all-around effort, scoring six points, pulling down a game-high 12 rebounds and dishing out six assists.
The lead swelled to 30 with 6 1/2 minutes left before Hayford emptied his bench.
“The team said at halftime that this doesn’t have to be a close game, let’s put the pedal to the metal,” Hayford said. “They were as fired up after a halftime as I’ve ever seen them.”
The Eagles also were firing away, hitting 31 of 59 shots from the field. Forward Ognjen Miljkovic – still smarting from a 1-for-10 shooting night in last week’s loss at Northern Arizona – was 6 for 6 from the field and 3 for 3 from long range.
“That (Saturday) was the worst game I’ve had in my career,” said Miljkovic, who also had five rebounds. “I just knew that I’m better than that – I believe in myself.”
Early on, Thursday’s game threatened to be a reprise of Eastern’s 61-51 win three weeks ago in Bozeman. EWU missed seven of its first 10 shots, helping the Bobcats (7-21, 4-12) take a 13-9 lead 9 minutes into the game.
But Harvey, who’s almost fully healed from a bruised quadriceps suffered a month ago, drained a 3-pointer from 30 feet out to give the Eagles the lead for good at 15-13. That gave him his 100th 3-pointer of the season, making him the first player in Big Sky history to accomplish that feat in two straight seasons.
The lead was down to four at one point, but a late run gave EWU a 37-28 lead at halftime.
Eastern began the second half on a 13-8 run. The highlight came, oddly enough, on an Eastern turnover, as Brandon got the ball back and fed Jois for a monster dunk to make it 50-36.
That opened the floodgates. Bogdan Bliznyuk’s layup capped a 13-0 run that made it 61-36 with 13:29 to play.
MSU, the worst-shooting team in the conference at 41.3 percent, got 27 points on 8-for-15 shooting from Marcus Colbert. The rest of the Bobcats were 16 for 47 (34 percent).
The blowout paid another dividend.
“We got to play together tonight and were able to keep heavy minutes off the guys – no one played more than 30 minutes,”Hayford said. “It’s been a long time since we were able to do that, so this is just what the doctor ordered.”
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