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Sports >  EWU basketball

Is inconsistent Montana still a threat? Eastern Washington believes so as it prepares for rival Griz

Feb. 16, 2021 Updated Wed., Feb. 17, 2021 at 10:42 a.m.

Tanner Groves, who leads EWU this season with 8.5 rebounds per game, fights for control against Montana on Jan. 9, 2020.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Tanner Groves, who leads EWU this season with 8.5 rebounds per game, fights for control against Montana on Jan. 9, 2020. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW) Buy this photo

Montana appears vulnerable, but Shantay Legans isn’t buying it.

EWU’s fourth-year head coach realizes the Grizzlies’ record (9-10, 5-7) is an aberration relative to their past success, which includes five NCAA Tournament berths and six Big Sky Conference titles since 2010.

Montana, which faces the conference-leading Eagles (10-6, 9-2) on Thursday in Cheney and Saturday in Missoula, is the only Big Sky member with a winning record against Legans squads (5-2).

In the Eagles’ Big Sky Conference championship season a year ago, the Griz doled out a 90-63 thumping in Cheney before completing the sweep 92-82 at Dahlberg Arena.

Montana also clipped the Eagles in the 2019 and 2018 Big Sky Tournament championship games.

Even if the Griz shared the plight of winless Idaho (0-17), EWU still wouldn’t be in a position to look ahead to its regular-season finale against resurgent Idaho State (12-7, 7-3) based on history.

“They’re always good and they’re good this year,” Legans said of Montana. “They’ve had some tough breaks, lost some close games.”

They’ve also lost a few good players, and not just crafty guard Sayeed Pridgett, who exhausted his eligibility after giving EWU problems throughout his All-Big Sky career.

There’s been somewhat of an exodus in Travis DeCuire’s program dating back to last summer.

Starting guard Timmy Falls left the program last summer before Utah transfer Naseem Gaskin was dismissed due to an offseason arrest.

There’s since been two notable in-season departures, including Northern Arizona transfer Cameron Satterwhite, a starter who left the team in December, and preseason All-Big Sky forward Michael Steadman, who recently entered the transfer portal.

Steadman, a transfer from San Jose State, averaged 9.9 points and 5.5 rebounds for the Griz, but played just 12 minutes and scored three points in a 91-82 loss to Weber State on Saturday. He confirmed his departure on Twitter on Monday.

But Montana, which has split five of its six Big Sky series, still has firepower, which it showed in a 80-67 win over second-place Weber State last Thursday.

The Griz feature 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kyle Owens (12.5 points per game, 5.6 rebounds) and freshman guard Brandon Whitney (10.8 ppg, 2.7 assists per game), who pace a team with the second-best 3-point percentage (37.1%) and scoring defense (65.3 ppg) in the Big Sky.

Montana is 5-1 on Thursdays and 0-6 on Saturdays.

“They’ve kicked our butts,” Legans said. “And it doesn’t matter what their record is. They’re a premier team in this league. When you’re in the ACC, you’ll always want to beat Duke and North Carolina, doesn’t matter if they’re in first or not.”

EWU is riding a seven-game winning streak after recently sweeping Montana State, two road wins it earned without two-time All-Big Sky guard Jacob Davison, who sat out because of flu-like symptoms.

Davison (12.6 ppg) is expected to return this week, but if he doesn’t, the Eagles are still a balanced, high-scoring (79.2 ppg) unit with forward Tanner Groves (17.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg), and guard/forwards Kim Aiken Jr. (10.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Tyler Robertson (11.7 ppg, 2.9 assists). Guard Mike Meadows has emerged with double-figure scoring in five straight games.

DeCuire, who hasn’t lost to EWU since January 2019, knows that stopping the high-octane Eagles will be a chore.

“They score the ball. They’re very versatile offensively and shoot a lot of 3s, but they have the ability to score in a lot of ways,” DeCuire said. “Right now, they probably have more low-post presence than they have in a few seasons, so they’re a tough team to guard. If you can slow them down, though, you can win, so we’re going to have to be locked in defensively more than ever.”

Aiken honored: The Big Sky Conference honored Aiken with Player of the Week distinction after a big weekend in Bozeman.

Aiken averaged 16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, three assists and shot 47.4% from the field in the sweep.

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