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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Unusual suspects spark Eagles

Bliznyuk, Miljkovic step up big time

It was the perfect recipe – for disaster.

The ingredients were already assembled Saturday afternoon at Reese Court: forward Venky Jois was off the court, Tyler Harvey was off his mark and Eastern Washington was off to an awful start against feisty North Dakota.

But a first half of mediocrity gave way to 20 minutes of sublimity as the Eagles blazed to a 102-80 Big Sky Conference win. On the way to a 67-point second half, the Eagles hit 74 percent of their shots and dominated on both sides of the ball.

In other words, it was a perfect 10, matching Eastern’s 10-0 home record. More important, the Eagles are 15-5 overall – matching last year’s win total – and still in first place in the Big Sky with a 6-1 record.

“I thought the second half was our best 20 minutes of basketball this season,” coach Jim Hayford said. “We were really good offensively and executed well. We shot 74 percent, but we combined it with really good intensity on defense and changed the game.”

The game-changers weren’t the usual suspects. Jois missed his third straight game with an ankle injury and national scoring leader Harvey was shackled by an aggressive North Dakota defense that would rather foul him than concede an open 3-pointer.

With Harvey often confronting two defenders at the top of the arc, there were opportunities galore for the rest of the Eagles, but forward Bogdan Bliznyuk was hampered by poor shooting and fellow big Ognjen Miljkovic was saddled with two fouls.

The result: Eastern was 11 for 30 from the field, 2 for 9 from beyond the arc and trailing a 6-11 North Dakota team by as many as nine points.

Still down 41-35 at the half, Hayford didn’t offer a stirring speech, just a little advice.

“I said, ‘We are within six and no one likes how we are playing. Bogdan, you went 2 for 9 in the first half, if we can get you nine looks are you going to score?’ He said, ‘yes.’ I said, ‘O.G., you haven’t scored yet – if we get you the ball are you going to score?’ He said, ‘yes.’

Both were as good as their word.

The deficit was erased in less than two minutes after a 3-pointer and a slam by Bliznyuk followed by a 3 from Harvey. UND briefly regained a 48-46 lead – its last, as it turned out, thanks to an amazing half from Miljkovic.

Scoreless in the first half, the sophomore from Serbia hit all but one of his seven shots in the second half, including 3 for 4 from beyond the arc. His 18-point outburst began with a 3-pointer that gave Eastern the lead for good at 49-48.

Over the next 6 1/2 minutes, Miljkovic and Bliznyuk (25 points for the game) accounted for 22 of the Eagles’ next 27 points, culiminating in Bliznyuk’s 3-pointer that provided a 72-59 lead with 8:41 left.

The lead grew to as many as 23.

Harvey led all scorers with 26 points – 10 coming from the line. The Eagles got a complete game from senior guard Drew Brandon, who had 11 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds.

Its aggression cost North Dakota dearly, with three starters in foul trouble for most of the game. Eastern cashed in at the foul line, hitting 24 of 28 shots.

“And that is how you get a 20-point win having one of the best players in the conference on the bench the whole game,” said Hayford, who got his first win against North Dakota in five tries.