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Eastern Washington defeats Southern Utah, clinches first-round bye

UPDATED: Thu., March 1, 2018

Eastern Washington University basketball coach Shantay Legans leads his team against Idaho on  Jan. 12 in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington University basketball coach Shantay Legans leads his team against Idaho on Jan. 12 in Cheney. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington certainly made a few points Thursday night.

Besides the obvious ones – the Eagles routed Southern Utah 74-51 in front of an appreciative crowd at Reese Court – they reinforced what coach Shantay Legans already knew:

This team has a chance to do something special next week.

“We’re right up there with the best teams, so I’m really excited about our chances,” Legans said after the Eagles won their fifth straight game to improve to 17-13 overall and 12-5 in the Big Sky Conference.

Then Legans took it a step further.

“I think we’re the best team in the Big Sky, and I think we have the best player in the conference,” Legans said, nodding to Bogdan Bliznyuk in the interview room after the game.

Adding to the fun, Bliznyuk put on another clinic, outscoring the Thunderbirds 24-22 by himself in the first half on the way to a game-high 32 points.

By then, the Eagles were well on their way against a team that somehow beat them in Cedar City, Utah six weeks ago.

As a bonus, the Eagles wrapped up a first-round bye in next week’s the Big Sky Tournament in Reno, Nevada.

Depending on the outcome of Saturday’s Senior Day game against last-place Northern Arizona, the Eagles could still finish either third or fourth in the final standings.

“I’m always looking forward to playing teams that beat us, and especially this one with how everything went down in that game,” said Bliznyuk, who fouled out of a game that the Eagles lost by four points in overtime.

Bliznyuk made amends on Thursday, going 13 for 21 from the field and grabbing 15 rebounds – more than twice as many as any other player on either team.

Along the way, Bliznyuk moved up two spots to third in the Big Sky career scoring list. He has 2,045 points. That’s 32 points behind Weber State’s Jeremy Senglin (2,078 from 2013-17) and 67 behind first-place Orlando Lightfoot of Idaho (2,102 from 1991-94).

Bliznyuk also inched closer to another record. With three more successful foul shots, he’s made 68 in a row – five off the single-season mark of 73 set by Gary Buchanan of Villanova in 2000-01.

Determined to avoid the slow start that plagued them in the first meeting, the Eagles shot out of the gate in front of a crowd of 1,643.

Shooting 53 percent from the field in the first half, they took leads of 20-6 and 28-12.

“They got on us early at their place, so we wanted to make sure we didn’t give them an opportunity to breathe,” Legans said.

“We had a great week of practice, probably one of the better we’ve had this year,” Legans said.

Leading 44-22 at halftime, the Eagles allowed the lead to slip to 16 five minutes into the game. The lull didn’t last, as Eastern went on a 13-3 run over the next four minutes.

Ty Gibson had 13 points and Sir Washington added 10 for the Eagles, who shot 49 percent (28 for 57) from the field and 44 percent (11 for 26) from 3-point range.

Southern Utah (11-17, 5-12) got 15 points from Jamal Aytes, but the Thunderbirds were just 3 for 19 from beyond the arc.

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