After Saturday’s win over Montana State, the topic at Eastern Washington’s postgame presser turned to free throws – especially Bogdan Bliznyuk’s knack for making a lot of them.
Bliznyuk has made 63 in a row, just 10 away from the NCAA single-season record.
The subject drew a predictable reaction from EWU coach Shantay Legans.
“Don’t jinx him,” Legans said.
Stellar free-throw shooting is just one reason the Eagles (14-13, 9-5 Big Sky Conference) are in fourth place.
In conference games only, Eastern is shooting 82.1 percent from the line – easily the best in the league. The tally on Saturday was 14 for 15 – which came in handy, considering the final score was 84-79.
Leading the way, as usual, was Bliznyuk, who’s not only the leading scorer in school history but also one of the best foul shooters anywhere.
Going into this week’s trip to Weber State and Idaho State, Bliznyuk is hitting 90.7 percent (137 of 151) of his free throws. He also has the longest streak in the nation and is 10 short of the NCAA single-season record of 73 set by Gary Buchanan of Villanova in 2000-01.
The career record of 85 was set over three seasons by Darnell Archey of Butler from 2001-03.
Those numbers creep into Bliznyuk’s brain from time to time.
“I was thinking about it a little bit this last game,” he said. “I say to myself, ‘ You’ve made 50, 60 in a row – now don’t miss.’ ”
Like the rest of his game, Bliznyuk’s expertise at the foul line is the product of practice and attention to detail.
His routine is always the same, no matter the game situation or how many minutes (usually all of them) Bliznyuk has played – three bounces, spin the ball, take a deep breath and go into his throwing motion.
“I want to be that guy at the end of the game, taking those free throws, and being tired doesn’t matter to me,” Bliznyuk said.
Bliznyuk isn’t the only one. He isn’t the top free-throw shooter, by percentage, on his team. That distinction belongs to junior guard Cody Benzel, the former Ferris star who’s 16 for 17 on the year and 9 for 9 in Big Sky play.
Guards Jack Perry is 14 for 17. Even 7-foot post Benas Griciunas – who was 10 for 18 in nonconference play – has made 6 of 8 in the Big Sky play.
“Our guys do a good job getting in the gym on their own,” Legans said. “Even on this last Friday’s practice, most of the team stayed to shoot three and free throws.
“I tell them to get off their legs, but they want to shoot free throws.”
The only problem is that the Eagles aren’t getting enough trips to the foul line. In 14 league games, they’re 161 for 196.
Contrast that with Thursday’s opponent, Weber State. The Wildcats are 237 for 301, getting to the foul line an average of seven more times per game than the Eagles.
Eastern counters by getting the ball in the hands of Bliznyuk.
Late in the game against Montana State, the Eagles were trying to put away the game at the line.
That meant getting the ball to Bliznyuk, but didn’t the Bobcats already know that?
Of course they did, but they seemed powerless to prevent inbounds passes from landing in his hands.
“Bogdan’s an amazing guy,” Legans said. “If they put a big guy on him, he’ll just easily maneuver around them. You put a smaller guy, he can easily post up and get the ball.
“He just has the knack to go get the ball. He loves free throws – he loves points, I guess.”
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