Enduring his coldest shooting stretch as a redshirt freshman, Steele Venters finally sank a tying 3-pointer with just under 19 seconds left Saturday against Montana, right in front of his own bench.
It was just the sort of play the Eagles had looked for in the closing minutes two nights before, when Venters was held without a 3-pointer for the first time this season. But the Eagles’ elation didn’t last long.
Rylan Bergersen, trying to grab a loose ball in the lane, was called for a foul as Grizzlies senior Cameron Parker stumbled over him with 3.1 seconds left.
Parker then sank both free throws to break the tie, and Eastern wasn’t able to release a shot before the final buzzer as Montana held on for a 61-59 victory in Missoula to sweep the teams’ season series.
It was second loss in a row for the Eagles (11-10 overall, 5-5 Big Sky Conference) fter a 69-65 defeat to Montana State on Thursday in Bozeman.
“I told our players in the locker room that we have to do this together, and we’re trying to do something that’s really, really, hard,” Eagles first-year coach David Riley said in a postgame radio interview. “We’re putting together a team, building chemistry and learning these lessons during the course of the year rather than building it over the course of a few years. This wall is really, really tough to break through, but we’re close. We have to continue to grow.”
Like that game against Montana State – which, like Montana, is 8-2 in Big Sky play this season – Eastern held Montana in check defensively, especially down the stretch when it made just two of its final 12 field-goal attempts.
Behind by as many as 10 points, the Eagles took a 52-50 lead with 4:28 left when Angelo Allegri made a 3-pointer.
Eastern wasn’t able to build on its advantage, however, and Montana scraped together a 7-1 run to reclaim the lead, 57-53. Crucially, Venters missed the front end of a 1-and-1 during that run, Eastern’s only miss in 12 free-throw attempts.
He made up for it with that tying 3, but ultimately the Eagles just got too little from Venters (five points on 2-of-9 shooting) and Bergersen (eight points, 1-for-6). Each scored in single digits for the second game in a row, and their struggles from the field contributed to Eastern shooting just 36.8% overall after shooting 38.5% against the Bobcats on Thursday.
Grad transfer Linton Acliese III led Eastern with 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Allegri added 11 points and 11 rebounds for his second double-double of the season.
Sophomore Josh Bannan led Montana with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He also had a team-high nine rebounds.
For the fourth time in five games, Eastern held its opponent under 40% shooting, but it’s 2-3 over that stretch.
On Monday night, Eastern will play its fourth straight road game at Weber State, its first matchup with the conference-leading Wildcats this season.
“It’s really hard to lose these games,” Riley said, “but we have a great opportunity ahead of us.”
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