RENO, Nevada — Bogdan Bliznyuk tasted the Big Dance as a freshman role player on a team loaded with stars.
Now the Big Sky Conference MVP gets a chance to lead Eastern Washington back to the NCAA Tournament.
Bliznyuk stamped his place in history as the most prolific scorer ever, leading his team into the championship game of the league tournament by pouring in 32 points to lead No. 3 seed EWU to an efficient 82-70 win over Southern Utah in the second semifinal on Friday night.
“It’s a big thing for our program to get to 20 wins. The guys deserve it and they did everything we asked them to do all season long,” EWU first-year head coach Shantay Legans said. “To be able to play for a championship is what you are trying to do when the season starts.
“Southern Utah is a good team and has a good coach, and they have some good players. For us to play with poise at the end and make the big plays when we needed to was huge for us. It helps to have Bogdan – he makes it real easy on me.”
Bliznyuk earned Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors on a team led by Venky Jois and Tyler Harvey, a 26-win squad that beat Montana in Missoula in the last non-neutral site Big Sky Tournament. Now Bliznyuk has a chance to lead a predominantly inexperienced roster into a Big Dance of his own if the Eagles can get past the Griz one more time.
“I’m always thinking about it, that’s always the goal is to be playing to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Bliznyuk said. “I’m hoping this one is as good as the first one.”
Eastern Washington’s star senior hit a pair of free throws to give him eight points in a back and forth first five minutes of action, helping him pass Idaho’s Orlando Lightfoot (1991-94) for the most career points in conference history. Bliznyuk now has 2,127 points and counting. He also has 186 points in his tournament career, passing former Montana standout Larry Krystkowiak for the most total points in tournament history.
“It’s definitely an honor and there have been a lot of great players in this conference,” said Bliznyuk, who also broke Harvey’s single-season EWU scoring record and now has 748 points this year. “I’m just really happy that our team was composed and we are playing for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.”
Bliznyuk hit 13 of his 17 field goal attempts on a night where EWU’s shooting percentage did not dip below 70 percent for the first 32 minutes of the game. EWU finished 31-of-48 from the floor (65 percent), helping endure SUU’s late push. The Thunderbirds shot 50 percent, including 58 percent after halftime.
“Once he gets rolling, it’s pretty hard to stop him,” Legans said. “Bogdan was playing great and our inside presence when we brought Benas (Griciunas) in, he was playing great and gave us a big boost. We kept attacking the rim and they didn’t have the bigs inside, shot blockers so we kept going at those guys.”
“I think he’s the best player in our league and I think he’s the best player in our league for a long time,” SUU head coach Todd Simon added about Bliznyuk.
Southern Utah was the surprise of the tournament leading up to Friday. The 10th-seeded Thunderbirds shut down Idaho State’s 3-point shooting in a 76-68 victory on Tuesday, then pulled the upset of the week by toppling No. 2 seed Idaho 92-78 by shooting 59 percent from the floor.
But a team that has been away from Cedar City its last five games, including a road trip through Cheney and Moscow to end the regular season before coming to Reno, had the Thunderbirds showing their fatigue early.
EWU ripped off a 12-2 run to turn a two-point game into a 25-15 advantage before cruising most of the rest of the first half. SUU senior James McGee hit a pull-up jump shot in the lane to cut the lead to 38-30 with a minute until halftime but EWU true freshman Jack Perry hit a turnaround fade away 3-pointer as the first half buzzer sounded to give the Eagles a 43-31 advantage at the break.
The margin hovered around 10 until a spurt that included a string of buckets from EWU backup center Benas Griciunas gave Eastern it’s largest lead, 62-45, with 11:16 left.
“Mason (Peatling) got in foul trouble and I had to step up,” Griciunas said after making all seven of his shots and scoring 14 points off the bench. “We have a lot of depth on this team and you have to step up and play hard.”
Southern Utah converted down the stretch as former UNLV transfer Dwayne Morgan scored 11 of his 15 points in the second, Jadon Cohee scored six of his 15 points in the final five minutes and the Thunderbirds got as close as 72-66 on Jamal Aytes’ final bucket with 2:10 left.
Eastern Washington true freshman Jacob Davison hit all nine of his free throw attempts, including six straight in the final 77 seconds to help the Eagles salt away the win.
“We tried really hard and that’s something I appreciate about this group,” Simon said. “I haven’t had to manage effort. They give us everything they have. But I thought we showed some fatigue. We didn’t want to let that on but what are we on, day 11 on the road? We’ve played five games in eight days. We showed a little of the tiredness in our legs.
“I’m so proud of them for playing so hard down the stretch and for the way they represented our university this week.”
The Eagles denied Montana an NCAA Tournament bid by rallying for a 69-65 win over the Griz in Missoula in DeCuire’s first season at the helm. In Legans’ first year steering the Eagles’ ship — he has been an assistant at EWU since 2009 — the Eagles have surged down the stretch, winning eight straight, a streak that started by handing Montana its first Big Sky loss 74-65 in Cheney in February.
The Griz had won 13 in a row to that point on the way to a 16-2 conference mark. Montana moved to 25-7 on Friday with a thrilling 91-89 overtime win over fifth-seeded Northern Colorado in the semifinal before EWU’s win. The Eagles will search for their third trip to the Big Dance on Saturday with only the top seed standing in their way.
“I think it’s going to be a great matchup, a battle, a war,” Bliznyuk said. “They are a great team and I’m sure they are coming out to get us because we beat them in our one matchup but we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.