Montana blitzed Eastern Washington with a rapid run out of the halftime locker room in the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game last March in Reno.
On Thursday in Cheney, Washington, the Eagles did the blitzing. EWU closed the first half on a 15-1 run to put a Griz team that played on cruise control for much of the night suddenly on its heels.
And in the second half, Eastern scored on eight straight possessions to build a 10-point lead and kept the defending league champions at bay for the final 10 minutes on the way to a 78-71 win in front of 1,578 at Reese Court.
Montana won 13 straight Big Sky contests last season before a league loss. UM finished the conference slate 16-2 on the way to winning the regular-season Big Sky title. And the Griz persevered through a wild trio of challenges on the way to the conference tournament title capped with an 84-72 win over Eastern Washington.
After Thursday’s result, Montana has now lost that many league games in just the third week of Big Sky play. UM had its 20-game home winning streak snapped last Saturday in a 77-74 loss against Portland State.
“In all honesty, this is two games in a row where our opponent wanted it more than us,” UM fifth-year head coach Travis DeCuire told Voice of the Griz Riley Corcoran after his team fell to 3-2 in league play, 10-6 overall. “We don’t have a hard time getting up for the teams that have high expectations, the South Dakota States, the Arizonas.
“There is a common respect when they look down at the other end. And I don’t know if we have been giving these other teams that same respect, which is why we have gotten off to slow starts or certain guys get off to slow starts.”
EWU graduated Bogdan Bliznyuk, the Big Sky’s all-time leading scorer and the league MVP last season. Eastern lost 12 of its first 15 games this season, including three of its first four in Big Sky play.
“You’ve gotta have respect for your opponent,” DeCuire told Corcoran. “You have to give them what you have every night no matter what their record is. I’m not sure everybody is doing that right now.”
Eastern Washington employed a sharp 2-3 zone for most of the game, limiting Montana senior Jamar Akoh to eight points on just three field goal attempts. The big man entered the game averaging 20 points per game in conference play despite battling a torn ligament in his shooting (right) wrist. Akoh also battled foul trouble, limiting him to 20 minutes.
“It’s unfortunate,” DeCuire said. “We had to play small. We played like that early in the year so it’s not like we weren’t accustomed to it. And I thought we made some good runs because we spread the floor, we played faster, we got in a good flow, we got good shots. But we didn’t make them.”
The Griz could also not crack the defense from deep, finishing 4-of-17 from beyond the arc. UM is now 4-of-34 from beyond the arc the last three halves its played.
“Tonight, a lot of our 3s were late-clock, desperation shots at the end because we weren’t getting good ball movement,” DeCuire said.
That zone defense combined with a deliberate offensive mindset helped the Eagles incrementally stretch the lead. EWU’s run to close the first half erased a Montana lead that swelled as large as 11 points (24-13 with 7:34 in the first half). The Eagles took a 32-29 lead to the break.
The Griz started the second half with an alley-oop lob to senior Michael Oguine for a dunk UM hoped would provide a spark. But back-to-back buckets by junior Mason Peatling — he finished with a team-high 17 points despite battling foul trouble and playing just 20 minutes — sparked a stretch that saw Eastern score on eight straight possessions.
A pair of Ahmaad Rorie free throws cut the gap to 49-46 with 12 minutes left. Jack Perry responded by drilling a 3-pointer, one of nine triples in 17 attempts for the hosts. Rorie, who finished with 17 points, answered by back converting in the paint. But Jesse Hunt scored through contact and converted the 3-point play to give EWU a 55-48 lead and keep the Griz from igniting a run.
“A big part of it was we turned the ball over,” DeCuire said of the first half of the second half. “We had two possessions where we made a call and we had a guy on the floor that didn’t know the play and ran it improperly so we ended up with the ball at the end of the shot clock against a zone going one on one. Then you take two deep 3s, they go down and score, hit a 3 in transition, get a 3-point play, that’s an example of what’s happening with guys not being ready to play.”
With 10:32 left, Kim Aiken hit his second 3-pointer of his 11-point night to give Eastern it’s largest lead, 58-48.
Sayeed Pridgett, who finished with 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting to go with a team-high nine rebounds, converted in the lane to pull the Griz within three points, 62-59, with 6:10 left. Eastern used timely jump shots and solid free throw shooting (21-of-27 overall, 13-of-17 after halftime) to hold off the visitors.
Peatling’s 6-of-8 effort from the floor helped the Eagles shoot 48 percent, including 52 percent after halftime. Tyler Kidd scored 13 points. Perry scored 12 by hitting all four of his 3-point attempts. Aiken and Jacob Davison each scored 11.
Rorie scored 17 but finished 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. Oguine scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds but was 1-of-4 from deep. The Griz shot 62.1 percent from inside the 3-point line and 21.1 percent from outside the arc.
“I hit the panic meter in September,” DeCuire told Corcoran. “Our sense of urgency individually and collectively is in question and it has been. It’s easy to come up with excuses and reasons why I’m not playing well, why I’m not where I’m supposed to be, why I can’t get something done. At some point in time, you have to make it happen. Right now, we have 15 guys who should be looking in the mirror.”
Montana plays at Northern Colorado on Saturday afternoon. The Bears are 4-0 and in first place in the Big Sky, 10-5 overall.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.