Coming off a pair of road conference victories last week, Eastern Washington’s men’s basketball team returned home Thursday with a chance to assert itself in the Big Sky race.
But instead, the Montana Grizzlies were the ones who made a statement, holding off Eastern’s various charges in a 90-78 victory at Reese Court in Cheney.
It was the Eagles’ second home loss in conference play after losing to Southern Utah on Dec. 2.
“We dug ourselves a hole, especially in the first 4 minutes of the first half and the first 4 minutes of the second half,” Eagles grad transfer Linton Acliese III said. “We just were playing catch-up the whole time.”
Montana stormed ahead 9-0 and by then the Eagles had committed four turnovers. The Eagles managed to take a brief lead, 21-19, before going cold and again falling behind by 10. Eastern used another run to retake a lead (34-33) and trailed by just two at halftime.
Yet within the first 5 minutes of the second half, Montana increased its lead to a game-best 15 points (53-38) as Eastern (8-7, 2-2 Big Sky) struggled to get traction out of the break.
Although they were burdened by foul trouble, the Grizzlies parried all of the Eagles’ attacks down the stretch with a variety of scorers.
Robby Beasley and Brandon Whitney each scored 19 points for Montana, and Josh Bannan added 16.
Eastern managed to pull within three points with 7:54 left, but the Grizzlies never relinquished the lead. They sank 21 of 24 free throws in the second half and made 49.1% of their shots overall, maintaining second place in the Big Sky with a 4-1 record (11-5 overall).
“We’ve got to do a better job preparing our guys. I take responsibility for that,” Eagles head coach David Riley said. “We didn’t do a good enough job for what they were going to bring at us.
“The guys did a great job of adjusting to that, but we’ve got to do better.”
Eastern also hit just 3 of 18 3-point attempts, a season low, and a season-best 27 makes at the free-throw line weren’t enough to compensate.
The Eagles’ 17 turnovers were their most in nine games, and the Grizzlies took advantage, scoring 21 points off them. Montana also had an 18-3 edge in fast-break points, getting easy baskets when the Eagles seemed to labor for theirs.
“That’s kind of who they are. They’re a physical team,” Riley said. “They say they’re going to get more turnovers with that aggression and they’re going to take the fouls that come with it.”
Both teams had three players foul out and were whistled for 28 fouls .
Rylan Bergersen and Acliese led the Eagles with 20 points each, most of Bergersen’s coming down the line on tough drives to the basket. Steele Venters added 15 points and fellow freshman Ethan Price – who fouled out for the fourth time this season – added 11 points.
Eastern’s 10 assists matched a season low, as none of the Eagles had more than two.
Eastern will host Idaho on Saturday afternoon before heading on the road again next week.