On a night when Eastern Washington relied heavily on Linton Acliese III, it was another grad transfer who finished the night in style.
Rylan Bergersen hit a step-back jumper from just inside the arc to break an overtime tie with 4.3 seconds left, and Eastern held on to beat Montana State 88-86 on Thursday at Reese Court in Cheney.
“I don’t even know what we drew up,” Acliese said of the game-winning play. “We were in the moment.
“They were playing tough defense, and it just came down to (Bergersen) making a big play. Everybody stepped up and made a big play.”
On so many occasions, it was Acliese – who teammates call “Boogie” – doing just that. He had 38 points on 13-of-19 shooting overall and shot a season-best 5-of-10 from 3-point range. He also made 7-of-8 free-throw attempts, including four during a 7-0 Eagles run at the end of regulation.
Bergersen scored the final points of that run, hitting a pair of free throws with 20.1 seconds left to tie the game at 74. Montana State had a chance to win, but Amin Adamu’s driving layup bounced off the backboard and past the rim in the closing seconds.
Steele Venters opened overtime with a three-point play, and after Adamu hit a shot in the lane, Ethan Price answered with a 3 from the wing – his only points of the game.
A couple of possessions later and still ahead by three points, Casey Jones capped a long possession with a dunk after Bergersen found him down low to give Eastern an 82-77 lead. Bergersen finished with 12 points and a season-high nine assists.
“(That was) ball movement and those guys playing together,” Eagles coach David Riley said of the play. “They went (to a) 1-3-1 (zone), and we moved the ball for about 20 seconds, and we got the ball zipping around.”
But Montana State stuck around, and down four with 22.7 seconds left, RaeQuan Battle hit a 3 and drew contact from Venters. Battle hit the free throw to tie the game.
Then Bergersen hit his jumper on the other end, Montana State inbounded and Venters knocked the ball out of bounds under the Eastern basket with 0.3 of a second left. The Bobcats got the ball in but couldn’t get up a shot before time expired – though the shot they did put up rattled in after the buzzer.
It was the second week in a row that Eastern knocked off the first-place team in the Big Sky, following a victory over Weber State on Feb. 10. The Eagles have now won three in a row and improved to 14-12 overall, 8-7 in conference games. In the process, they ended the Bobcats’ 11-game winning streak.
Junior forward Jubrile Belo scored a team-high 19 points for Montana State (20-6, 12-3). Adamu and Battle each finished with 16 points. Xavier Bishop was held to 13 points on 3-of-14 shooting, though he hit three 3-pointers in the second half to help the Bobcats take a lead, which grew to as many as seven.
“He’s a tough player. He has the heart of a lion,” Acliese said of the senior Bishop. “He’s 5-8 but he’s a big time player. He’s got a great game. He can shoot it, finish it, and he just has heart.”
For the Eagles, the freshman Jones finished with a career-high 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting and played a season-high 23 minutes off the bench. Venters hit just 1-of-2 3-point attempts but made 6 of 11 shots overall and went 6 for 7 at the line to finish with 19 points.
Eastern outscored MSU 46-36 in the paint and had a 19-2 advantage in fast-break points. Many of those came from Acliese, who played almost all of the second half with three fouls.
“Dave (Riley) was just on me about (how) I need to be aggressive, be aggressive, be aggressive, be aggressive,” Acliese said, “and I just came out there and wanted to do that.”
On Saturday, the Eagles play at Idaho, which beat Montana on Thursday night and has won two in a row after beating Weber State last weekend.
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