BOISE – It was as brutal for Eastern Washington as it was familiar.
For the second time in 359 days, the Eagles came tantalizingly close to punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament and enjoying a confetti shower to conclude the Big Sky Tournament.
Rival Montana twice erased a double-digit deficit in the championship game, denying EWU a Selection Sunday cameo.
Top-seeded Montana’s 68-62 win on Saturday at CenturyLink Arena – a venue that was mostly filled with a raucous, maroon-clad contingent – was more of a repeat nightmare for the third-seeded Eagles than it was déjà vu.
It squandered a 12-point cushion this time and led the first 29 minutes before the high-powered Grizzlies (26-8) disrupted the Eagles on the defensive end.
After hitting seven of its first eight shots – a run spearheaded by freshman Kim Aiken Jr.’s two 3-pointers and thundering putback dunk – and forcing Montana into 10 first-half turnovers, EWU appeared poised to capture the program’s third NCAA Tournament berth.
Instead, Montana, which split with EWU during the regular season, shot 62 percent in the second half and rarely coughed up the ball.
“To see them with all their red eyes is sad and heartbreaking,” EWU coach Shantay Legans said of his players. “But they are teammates and they love each other. We’ll be back here next year, and hopefully we’re on the other end of this thing. I’m just hurting for the guys.”
Sayeed Pridgett scored 12 of his game-high 18 points in the second half for the Griz, whose once-stagnant offense was sparked by the long-range shooting of Donaven Dorsey.
Dorsey hit all four of his 3-pointers, including a jumper at the 8:20 mark that gave Montana 55-51 it didn’t relinquish.
EWU was held to five field goals in the final 8 minutes, four by Jesse Hunt (17 points, seven rebounds), who tried to will his team back.
A misty-eyed Hunt, one of EWU’s three seniors, lauded Montana’s late defensive schemes, but also thought the Eagles were cold down the stretch.
“They turned up the pressure, that affected us. We had 15 turnovers,” Hunt said. “We were missing shots. We got open looks, but missed them and (Montana) capitalized.
A late 3-pointer by Bobby Moorehead and jumper by Oguine put away the Eagles.
Eastern, the hottest team going into the tournament, saw its five-game win streak end.
“We’ve been here before. We play in spurts,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. “And if we get multiple spurts, we put teams away.
“We knew we would win this game with our defense.”
Mason Peatling, EWU’s standout junior forward, was in foul trouble throughout the game. After scoring a combined 48 points in tournament wins over Montana State and Southern Utah, he was held to to 13 points.
Peatling was issued a technical – his fourth foul – after Aiken and Pridgett got tangled up on the ground underneath Montana’s basket following an Oguine layup at the the 7:20 mark, creating a heated exchange between the teams.
Peatling and Montana star Ahmaad Rorie were both issued technicals, but Peatling said having the fourth foul affected his usually physical play down the stretch.
“I just went over there and said, ‘Get off of (Aiken),’ then Rorie sort of got in my face, then I backed away and got a technical,” said Peatling, whose team trailed 57-51 during the scrum.
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