Montana kept Eastern Washington out of the 2018 and 2019 NCAA Tournaments, adding juice to an already established Big Sky Conference rivalry.
But when the Grizzlies clipped the Eagles 68-62 in the Big Sky Tournament title game in Boise last March, one of the conference’s elite scorers watched from the bench in a cast.
EWU guard Jacob Davison was playing some of his best basketball before going down with a season-ending ankle injury in February, capping an eight-game tear in which he averaged 23.8 points
The last time Davison faced Montana, his last-second jumper was off the mark in a 75-74 regular-season loss in Missoula.
He still thinks about that open look.
“I’m excited to play Montana again,” Davison said earlier this season. “Just how it ended the past two seasons, and my missed game-winner. I want to get them back.”
Davison and the Eagles (9-5, 2-1 Big Sky) face the Grizzlies (7-8, 3-1) on Thursday at Reese Court in a meeting between preseason favorites.
The media picked Montana to win the Big Sky crown. The coaches picked EWU.
EWU was off to a 1-3 start in Big Sky play a year ago before it downed Montana 78-71 in Cheney, sparking a turnaround that saw the Eagles win 12 of their final 18 games.
Both squads will be in the top tier of the league standings when they meet on Thursday.
“It’s our first game with our students back, and it will be a lot of fun,” EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “We need this win and want to beat Montana. We have a sour taste in our mouth from last year and the year before. Every game means something, but we are playing the team that kept us from the NCAA Tournament the last two years. “
Montana is led by standout Sayeed Pridgett, who is averaging 19 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and two steals a game. In his previous four games against EWU, he’s averaged 17.3 points.
Fellow senior guard Kendal Manuel averages 14 points for Montana, which lost a considerable amount of talent and experience from its back-to-back NCAA Tournament teams.
Grizzlies coach Travis DeCuire has tried several lineups to work around Pridett and Manuel this season, and started the season 1-4 with a 74-72 loss to NAIA Montana Tech.
Montana also lost 87-82 to Omaha in Missoula, four days after the EWU handled Omaha 97-56 in Cheney.
The Grizzlies have seemingly righted the ship in Big Sky play with wins over Northern Arizona, Sacramento State and Southern Utah despite averaging 64.7 points this season, ranking 315th in the country.
EWU and its second-ranked offense (85.9 ppg) is led by Davison (17.6 ppg) and forwards Kim Aiken Jr. (16.4 ppg, 11 rpg) and Mason Peatling (15.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg).
True freshman point guard Ellis Magnuson is averaging a league-best 5.9 assists a game for EWU.
“When you have a player like (Pridgett) that can win you a ballgame, it doesn’t matter who you play against,” Legans said. “I feel that same way with our three-headed monster of Mason, Jacob and Kim. Montana has experience and a very good coach, and that will make it a fun challenge.”
EWU duo recognized: Aiken and Peatling were named to HoopsHD.com’s All-Big Sky midseason team.
They joined Montana’s Pridgett – the midseason MVP – Montana State guard Harald Frey and Sacramento State guard Joshua Patton.
Jackson to transfer: EWU redshirt sophomore guard Elijah Jackson has entered his name into the NCAA transfer portal.
The Seattle product appeared in 25 games during the 2018-2019 season, but with the emergence of freshman guards Magnuson and Casson Rouse, Jackson has logged 20 total minutes this year.
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