Big Sky Conference

Bliznyuk leads Eagles past Vikings, into semis


RENO, Nevada — Jack Perry showed none of the fear you might expect from a freshman playing in his first Big Sky Tournament game in setting the tone for the Eagles.

But when Portland State started unleashing its trademark onslaught, the Eagles turned to the Most Valuable Player in the Big Sky Conference.

Perry, the latest in EWU’s long line of talented Australians, showed uncanny aggression, shooting seven shots in the first five minutes of the game. He hit his first two 3-pointers and scored eight of Eastern’s first 10 points as the Eagles jumped out to a nine-point lead before the game was four minutes old.

Those shots helped open up Eastern Washington’s offense even further, extending Portland State and opening up the lane for Bodgan Bliznyuk.

The senior MVP continued his onslaught on the Big Sky’s all-time career scoring record as he poured in 35 points, including eight in the final 46 seconds to help his third-seeded Eagles win for the seventh straight time and move into the semifinals with a 78-72 win over No. 6 Portland State in the final quarterfinal on Thursday evening.

Eastern Washington forward Bogdan Bliznyuk (32) and guard Ty Gibson (2) box out Portland State forward Jamie Orme (13)/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s huge because we get to advance,” EWU first-year head coach Shantay Legans said following his first postseason win at the helm for the Eagles. “I told our guys in the locker room, this is like finals. You have three tests.

“I’m proud of the way we stepped up down the stretch and fought.”

The Eagles hit seven of their first 12 3point attempts and shot 58.3 percent in a nearly flawless first half to build a 43-27 advantage. Bliznyuk’s first field goal of the second half — one of 11 makes on just 14 attempts, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc — pushed the EWU lead to 48-27, the largest advantage of the game.

“When other guys hit shots, it opens up the court and spaces it out,” Bliznyuk said. “Teams can’t sag in on us because we have great shooters so if they do, we have great shooters who can hit shots so pick your poison.”

But like they have all season in Barret Peery’s first year at the helm, the Vikings never quit. PSU forced 11 second half and followed an explosive performance from its backup backcourt of Derek Brown and Deante Strickland to cut the gap all the way down to four points, 72-69, with 1:12 left.

“We got into the locker room at halftime and told each other we were going to go all out. Why not? Twenty minutes of hell,” PSU senior Brandon Hollins said. “We didn’t expect it to end like this but at the same time, we have to hold our heads high.”

But Bliznyuk answered Holland Woods’ two free throws with a 3-point play of his own to push the lead back to seven, then hit three more free throws down the stretch to secure EWU’s semifinal matchup Friday night against No. 10 Southern Utah.

Eastern Washington point forward Bogdan Bliznyuk (32)/by Brooks Nuanez

“I just want to get back to the big dance. I played on a great Eastern team when I was a freshman that went dancing, and we just want to go back,” Bliznyuk said. “This is my last go-around I want to experience that same feeling and play in the NCAA Tournament. I want to do everything I can to get our team there.”

The league MVP’s point total gives him 2,095 points in his decorated career, moving him past former Weber State All-Big Sky guard Jeremy Senglin into second place on the league’s all-time scoring list. Bliznyuk now needs just eight points to surpass former Idaho great Orlando Lightfoot’s career record of 2,102 points, a mark that has stood since 1994.

Bliznyuk missed the second of two technical foul shots after Peery received the first tech handed out to a coach of the tournament. The miss snapped Bliznyuk’s NCAA record of 77 consecutive free throws made. Bliznyuk is now 157 of 173 from the charity stripe this season overall.

“I just missed one,” Bliznyuk said. “It happens I guess. Not often.”

Brown scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the final eight minutes to spark Portland State’s comeback effort. Strickland scored 10 of his 12 points between the final minute of the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second half as PSU piled up 40 points from its bench.

Portland State forward Brandon Hollins (1)/by Brooks Nuanez

But senior Bryce Canda had an off shooting night, missing eight of his 10 shots, including seven of his eight tries from beyond the arc. The captain finished with five points. Hollins, the league’s highest motor player, finished with nine points and seven rebounds as the Vikings finish their season at 20-12.

“The fight of their seniors tonight showed a lot and we will go talk to our guys about it, but they fought tooth and nail,” Legans said. “The way they fought when they were down 19 was big time. A lot of those guys we recruit. We know those guys personally. To see them walking off the court for the last time was tough.”

The 20-win season in Peery’s first at the helm is the fifth in school history and included some historic highlights, marking the first time PSU has won that many since 2009. The Viks competed with Duke at the PK80 Tournament in Portland, lost to national power Butler by two the next day and whipped Stanford in the third day of the tournament honoring Nike CEO Phil Knight.

PSU won 10 league games despite playing 13 of its first 16 games on the road. With a new $52 million arena under construction downtown in the City of Roses, the Vikings played their games at Division III Lewis & Clark College.

Portland State’s leading scorer Deontae North was dismissed from the program seven games into the conference season yet five double-doubles from Hollins down the stretch helped the Vikings win seven of 10 entering Thursday, including a 71-67 win over Sac State in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament to avenge a regular-season sweep at the hands of the Hornets.

“There was no doubt in my mind even down 16 at halftime that we wouldn’t make a game of it,” Peery said. “We battled, fought and scratched down to the very end and we competed like they have all year. That’s a team that went and got 20 wins just battled and competing.

Eastern Washington guard Jack Perry (11) defended by Portland State guard Holland Woods (23)/by Brooks Nuanez

“I’m proud we are broken hearted. I’m proud we have two guys up here crying because I would be really worried we didn’t have the right program if we weren’t hurt after a game like this.”

Peery said the Vikings will accept a postseason invitation if any national tournament comes along with an invite. But that did not reduce the sting of defeat for Hollins, a former junior college transfer who butted heads with former head coach Ty Geving in his first season at PSU last year only to blossom into one of the most aggressive, high motor players in the league.

“I’ve been a loser all my life,” Hollins said. “My head wasn’t even in to none of this last year. This man (Peery) came in and boosted everyone’s confidence from the basketball team to the girls basketball team to the track team. I just never been around a team like this, I’ve never been around a coach like this. I’ve had a lot of coaches in my life but this man brings so much to the table.

“It’s like he never wanted us to look down on ourselves. He always wanted us to be proud. It’s we over me. I will never forget that. I hope the guys that watching this that look back on this team years from now, I hope they never forget that. Portland State basketball is we, never me.”

Hollins committed his fifth and final foul with 22 seconds left. When the final buzzer sounded, he sat on his knees in front of the scorer’s table kissing the basketball court while Peery consoled him. In the post-game press conference, he told his head coach he loved him as he fought back tears while Canda wept into a towel.

Portland State guard Deante Strickland (13) drives to teh rim with Eastern Washington forward Bogdan Bliznyuk (32) defending/by Brooks Nuanez

“This was the best and most fun I’ve had in my basketball career in my whole life,” Canda said. “What we were able to accomplish in such a short period of time was special to me and it’s going to stick with me.”

Portland State’s exciting campaign ends but Eastern Washington’s continues to surge. After a two-game skid that included losses at PSU and rival Idaho, Eastern has not lost, a seven-game streak that includes a win over league champion Montana, a victory that snapped the Grizzlies’ 13-game conference winning streak.

If EWU wants another shot at the Griz, UM will have to outlast red-hot Northern Colorado (an 80-55 winner over No. 4 Weber State on Thursday) and Eastern will have to get past upstart SUU. The 10th-seeded Thunderbirds upset No. 7 Idaho State Tuesday before drilling No. 2 Idaho 92-78 on Thursday in the most shocking result of the week so far.

“They are physically talented,” Legans said. “When you compare player-for-player with any team in the league, they are right up there with the top teams.

“A team from Tuesday can win it – I’m a firm believer in that, especially the way the tournament is set-up. You play Tuesday and get the day off. You get in the gym more and get acclimated, and it gives you an advantage. But now we’ve been in the gym and we feel good about it. I was hoping to play Idaho again, but Southern Utah is a great opponent. We have to be ready for them. They are playing with all the confidence in the world.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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