Game Recap

Eastern Washington rips Montana again to earn first sweep of Griz since 2003

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MISSOULA, Montana — Kim Aiken Jr. certainly didn’t forget. Tanner Groves certainly remembered the feelings of disappointment. Shantay Legans certainly listened to his head coaching counterpart leading up to the renewal of one of the most combative and competitive rivalries in the Big Sky Conference. 

On Thursday in Cheney, Eastern Washington looked like a team on a mission to eradicate a four-game losing streak to rival Montana, a stretch that included getting swept last season despite winning the outright Big Sky regular-season championship and a recent history that also included losing consecutive championship games at the Big Sky Tournament. 

In the first of two straight rivalry showdowns, the Eagles hit 14 straight shots at one point, starting the game 17-of-19 from the floor on the way to building a 27-point lead before the game was even 12 minutes old.

On Saturday, Aiken, Michael Meadows and the exuberant Eagles led by Legans, the lead maestro of Eastern’s edgy orchestra, exerted their will upon the Grizzlies for the second game in a row. 

Eastern Washington blitzed the Griz like it was a football game in the fall, racing to a 17-3 less than eight minutes into the game thanks to six points from Aiken, EWU’s junior enforcer, and five points from Meadows, an emerging star in the Big Sky Conference who is getting significant minutes and producing significant statistics as preseason Big Sky MVP Jacob Davison remains on the outside of Legans rotation looking in. 

By the time the dust settled, Eastern Washington held a commanding 49-27 halftime lead. By the time EWU took its foot off the proverbial gas pedal, the Eagles led 67-38 with 13 minutes, 38 seconds still remaining in the game. 

And by the time the final buzzer sounded, Eastern Washington held a second consecutive 90-76 victory over Montana. 

“We came in with a lot of willpower,” Aiken, the reigning Big Sky Player of the Week, told Ryan Collingwood of the Spokesman Review. “I watching the movie ‘Green Lantern’ last night, and the whole thing about willpower stuck with me.”

For a moment, the beat down was going so heavily in Eastern Washington’s favor, the smattering of sports information UM employees and media members in attendance began researching the worst home Big Sky Conference losses in Griz hoops history. 

Eastern Washington forward Kim Aiken Jr. (24) dunks vs. Montana Saturday/by Griz Communications

Although Saturday’s result did not come close to the 108-56 whooping UM took at the hands of Portland State in Missoula in 2008 nor did it break the top five worst home defeats of the last 21 years at Dahlberg Arena, the result still served as salt in the open wound of Montana’s first struggling season in recent memory and a modicum of revenges for the ebullient Eagles after sweeping Montana for the first time in Legans’ four seasons leading EWU. 

The sweep marked the first time Eastern Washington has done that to Montana since 2003. In the days leading up to the game, UM head coach Travis DeCuire said his Griz had been the “speed bump” between EWU reaching the NCAA Tournament. Following Saturday’s win, Legans tweeted about just that. 

“You hear things. Our guys are social media savvy,” Legans said. “But this was a great sweep and tells you how far this program has come and where we are headed.”

Less than 48 hours after scoring 21 points and grabbing eight rebounds, Aiken poured in 28 points and grabbed 10 boards, splitting each statistical total evenly in each half. Meadows, who entered the game averaging 17.3 points per contest since entering the starting lineup three games ago, scored 13 of his 20 points before halftime. And Groves, EWU’s MVP candidate junior center, finished with 14 points in 21 minutes, although his services were not essential, as the Eagles won for the ninth straight time to move to 11-2 in league play, good enough for sole possession of first place in the conference. 

The dominance of EWU’s first half was perhaps best on full display during the final play of the stanza. Eastern, a team that has hit as many as 19 3-pointers in a single game this season, did not shoot a triple in the first half until the final possession. 

On that final possession, a designed play resulted in Aiken getting all the way to the rim, before kicking to Meadows, who stroked a corner triple to give EWU a 22-point halftime lead. 

In the first two minutes of the second half, EWU made four straight more 3-pointers and ended up hitting 7-of-16 for the game. 

“We love the 3-point line, but we just took what we were giving us,” Aiken said.

Legans didn’t mind. 

“People say we’re a just a 3-point-shooting team, like we’re soft,” Legans said. “We can score in a lot of ways.”

Montana’s loss is its third straight. It also marks the first time since the 1969-1970, the second and final season of the Bob Cope era that the Griz have given up 90 points three games in a row. Lou Rocheleau took over the following season for one campaign before giving way to Judd Heathcote in 1971. UM has had five losing seasons since then, including none since the 2003-2004 campaign under Pat Kennedy. 

Montana guard Cameron Parker (11) attacks the rim vs. Eastern Washington Saturday/by Griz Communications

Saturday marks Montana’s ninth conference loss, its most under DeCuire and its most since Wayne Tinkle’s final season (12-8) in 2013-14. UM has finished under .500 in league play five times since Heathcote left Montana in 1976 to take the head coaching job at Michigan State. That will be the case this season unless Montana can win its final four league, including two at Idaho State next weekend and a pair at home against winless Idaho to finish the regular-season. 

Montana’s 5-9 league record now includes seven consecutive losses in Saturday conference games. The Grizzlies — winners of three of the last five and five of the last nine league regular-season titles along with eight of the last 18 Big Sky bids to the NCAA Tournament — sit ninth in the 11-team Big Sky, a game ahead of Northern Arizona, who UM split with earlier this season. 

“There’s a group of guys on that (EWU) team that has lost quite a few games to us, including some very impactful games,” DeCuire said. “When you have guys who experienced that, they are going to be excited and have a little extra intensity going into the game in terms of who they are playing for. 

“In terms of us, we don’t have any guys that are really in rotation other than (junior center) Mack (Anderson) that were along for some of those battles we had with them. Sometimes, you don’t know what you are getting into until you show up for the battle.”

Montana true freshman forward Josh Bannan scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds to help UM assure the loss was tied for the worst of the DeCuire era and the sixth-most lopsided defeat in the last 21 years at UM. Freshman Robby Beasley, who scored a career-high 25 in Cheney on Thursday to help Montana erase a nearly 30-point deficit, finished with 16 points off the bench.

Parker, a junior from Portland who started his career at Sacred Heart, converted just two of his eight field goal attempts but posted the first double-double of his Griz career with 12 points and 10 assists. 

“Better team won,” DeCuire said. “They are a well-oiled machine right now, scoring at a very high rate. Their pace offensively, their versatility is very tough to slow down. Once we found a way to get our offense going, we were fine but we just found ourselves in a hole we couldn’t dig ourselves out of. Congratulations to a team that is playing very good basketball right now and we will keep plugging away trying to improve going into next week to see if we can earn some momentum.”

Photos by Tommy Martino – Griz Communications. All Rights Reserved.

Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans works the sidelines vs. Montana Saturday/by Griz Communications
Montana forward Mack Anderson (23) shoots a layup vs. Eastern Washington Saturday/by Griz Communications
Montana guard Josh Vazquez (3) rises up vs Eastern Washington Saturday/by Griz Communications

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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