Even in Eastern Washington’s most glory-bathed years, Montana would find a way to spoil the occasion.
The Big Sky Conference’s most consistent, NCAA Tournament-qualified program of the 2000s handily swept EWU last season when the Eagles won an outright conference title.
The Eagles’ only two NCAA Tournament teams in 2004 and 2015 weren’t void of losses to their Missoula-based nemesis, either.
EWU’s Big Sky Tournament championship appearances in 2018 and 2019 resulted in gut-wrenching losses to Montana.
EWU appeared to have channeled all of that frustration Thursday at Reese Court, jumping out to a swift 27-point lead before dispatching the Grizzlies 90-76 to stay atop the conference standings.
The Eagles (11-6, 10-2 Big Sky) won their eighth straight game thanks to a powerful, first-half uppercut that saw them connect on 17 of 18 shots in a key stretch.
Tanner Groves (12 points, 14 rebounds) was having his way inside against Montana, which missed the services of big man Michael Steadman, a preseason All-Big Sky selection who quit the team earlier this week.
Kim Aiken Jr. (21 points, eight rebounds), Tyler Robertson (21 points, five assists), Jack Perry (3 for 3 from from 3-point range) and Mike Meadows (14 points, five assists) were dangerous from the outside (11 for 20), helping the Eagles build a 47-20 lead and ultimately end a four-game skid against Montana.
The Eagles, trying to win back-to-back Big Sky titles for the first time in program history, were all gas and no brakes, shooting 54% against a relatively down Montana team (9-11, 5-8).
“We had the score (90-63) posted in our locker from when they smacked us here last year,” Robertson said. “We came out with a lot of energy, knew we had to stick to the game plan and hit them in the mouth.”
Montana is the lone Big Sky program with a winning record (5-3) against fourth-year EWU head coach Shantay Legans, who improved to 60-19 against conference foes.
“You’re happy for your guys, especially some of them who finally got their first win against Montana,” Legans said.
It was Montana head coach Travis DeCuire’s worst Big Sky loss in his seven seasons.
EWU’s balance – even with two-time All-Big Sky guard Jacob Davison on the bench after practicing once this week due to a previous flu-like illness – was too much for the Griz, who have several new pieces this season.
Davison, who scored 34 points in Missoula a year ago, played two minutes.
“When you’ve got guys who haven’t played against (EWU) before, they don’t have a true understanding for what is different about them,” DeCuire said.
Frustration was apparent for the Grizzlies, who engaged in mutual trash talk with EWU early in the game and on the way to the locker room for halftime.
“You gotta love it,” Legans said. “It’s a heated rivalry.”
EWU cooled off in the second half, twice cutting the Eagles’ once mammoth lead to 13 points, but the Eagles subsequently answered each small Montana run.
If not for the efforts of reserve guard Robby Beasley (25 points on 9 of 16 shooting), Montana would have been in bigger trouble.
The Grizzlies were held to 38 % shooting in the first half and were beat in the open floor by an EWU team that outscored them 19-4 in transition points.
Aiken, who had four steals, helped create several fastbreaks.
He expects a motivated Grizzlies team in Missoula on Saturday.
“It’s a good thing they won’t have their cheerleaders at home,” joked Aiken, who appeared to be pushed by a Montana cheerleader on the road last season near the baseline, resulting in the cheerleader’s ejection.
EWU hasn’t swept the Montana series since the 2002-2003 season.
Correction: EWU’s school-record winning streak is 11 games, set during the 2003-2004 season. A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the record as eight games.
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