Big Sky men's basketball tournament

Eastern Washington rips Montana, earns championship berth

on

BOISE, Idaho — The Groves brothers owned the inside of the Grove Friday night at Idaho Central Arena.

The Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament has been played here for the last three years inside an arena that is in the center of Boise’s Grove hotel.

In Friday’s second semifinal game, Eastern Washington junior Tanner Groves, the Big Sky regular-season MVP, and his sophomore brother Jacob Groves scored the first 13 points as the Eagles raced to an early 10-point lead over suddenly surging Montana.

And unlike the two regular-season matchups between the Eags and the Grizzlies, the Groves brothers and their teammates did not let up until deep into the second half.

In EWU’s 90-76 wins over Montana during the regular season, Eastern built leads of at least 20 points in the first half.

Friday, Tanner and Jacob helped lead a charge that saw EWU push the lead to as many as 38 points as second-seeded Eastern Washington poured it on their bitter rival in a 78-50 victory to advance to the Big Sky Tournament championship game.

The Eagles will take on fifth-seeded Montana State at 6 p.m. on Saturday night.

Eastern Washington’s Jacob Groves scores on the block against Montana/ by Brooks Nuanez

“Our defense in that first half was huge,” EWU head coach Shantay Legans said. “To beat a team like that in that fashion with all the chips on the table and pushing for pride trying to get to the championship game, you are playing for everything.

“This team beat us twice in this tournament. We hear it. Our guys keep hearing it. It wasn’t that hard to get excited for this game.”

Jacob Groves hit a jumper with 12 minutes, 53 seconds left before taking a seat with a career-high 21 points on 10-of-13 shooting. A little more than six minutes later, Tanner Groves swatted a shot out of bounds before taking a seat, finishing with 18 points and four rebounds.

When Tanner finished his evening, the Groves brothers led Montana 39-33 and EWU held a 68-33 lead. A 3-pointer by Montana sophomore Kyle Owens with 5:34 left finally helped the overmatched Griz surpass the EWU brothers’ scoring total.

“It feels pretty cool,” Tanner Groves said. “I’ve been playing with this guy since I was really young and it’s really cool that I can play with him in such a big game like today. It’s pretty cool and something that doesn’t happen too often.”

“We’ve worked for it, we’ve have spent a lot of hours in the gym and in the driveway trying to get better,” Tanner Groves said. “Shoutout to our teammates for finding us and finding the mismatches on the court. We really focused on that in practice and talking about it on the film, finding mismatches against Montana.”

Montana has broken Eastern Washington’s hearts in the postseason recently, including defeating the Eagles in the two most recently played Big Sky Tournament championship games in March of 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Even last season, when EWU raced to its first outright Big Sky title in more than a decade, Montana swept Eastern in the regular season. Last season’s tournament was cancelled before either EWU or UM got in a game.

This season, the Eagles did not forget any of that past. In the matchup in Cheney, EWU converted 13 consecutive field goals and 17 out of 19 while racing to a 47-20 lead. In Missoula two days later, EWU executed at a high level in building a 49-27 halftime lead.

Friday, Eastern shot 61 percent in the first half while holding the Grizzlies to 21 percent shooting on the way to building a 44-15 lead at the break. When Tyler Robertson hit a turn-around jumper in the paint with 12:17 left, EWU led 63-25, the largest gap in the game to eliminate a team that entered the semifinal on a Big Sky Tournament-record eight-game winning streak.

The Groves brothers combined to convert 18 shots in 27 attempts, including making three of five from beyond the arc. Robertson scored nine points while first-team all-league forward Kim Aiken Jr. had eight points to go with 10 rebounds.

“We had the best player on the floor,” Legans said. “We can throw the ball into Tanner and they can’t stop him. I told our guys that Montana didn’t get bigger, they didn’t get taller so they had to decide if they were going to double or not.

Montana junior center Mack Anderson goes to the rim against EWU/ by Brooks Nuanez

“Tanner was letting the game come to him and then stepped it up. Then his little brother stepped up and played really good. When you have these two guys playing well, there’s so many guys who can have big games for our team.”

Aiken, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, also spearheaded an effort that saw EWU bait the Griz into shooting jump shots instead of attacking the rim. Montana shot 34.5 percent from the floor and made just 5-of-23 from beyond the arc. Eastern out-rebounded Montana 40-25.

“Our defense in that first half was huge,” Legans said.

BOX SCORE

Montana’s season was a grind from the beginning. A team featuring nine new players lost a pair of one-point decisions at Southern Utah in their second and third games of the year. UM stumbled to a 2-5 start to league play thanks to losses in the final minute to Northern Colorado and Southern Utah.

The Grizzlies earned a road sweep at Idaho State to enter the tournament as the No. 6 seed. Montana seemed to have turned a corner by outlasting Idaho in the first round on Wednesday and ripping No. 3 Weber State in the quarterfinals on Thursday night.

It all came to a halt on Friday night.

“That’s a tough one and they have had our number this year, obviously,” UM seventh-year head coach Travis DeCuire. “One of the things I’ve learned here in recent times and at other programs before returning to Montana, once you have achieved the goal of attaining championships and being at the top of the standings, it’s hard to maintain and sustain that success.

“With a young group, that’s what we are experiencing. I remember in 2016 the season we had and the group we had like this that ended like this and I remember the off-season we had that led to the runs in 2018 and 2019. When you have a young team that runs into a road block, you learn from it. And you learn more from wins than losses.”

Outside of junior reserve point guard Cam Parker’s 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting, the rest of the Griz went 13-of-48 (27 percent). EWU held Owens, UM’s leading scorer, to seven points on 2-of-8 shooting. Robby Beasley III, a true freshman who poured in 23 points on Thursday against Weber, was held to 2-of-6 on the way to five points.

“Groves is a great player, Aiken is a great player and when they post up, they have bigger guys but tonight was about their defense and our offensive execution,” Parker said. “They are a great team that run a really good offense.”

UM junior Mack Anderson finished his strong tournament stretch by scoring nine points but did not get a rebound. Freshman Josh Bannan led the Griz with 10 boards but finished just 1-of-8 from the floor on the way to two points.

“This was not the way we expected to represent the Griz but there’s always a sign of the future in terms growth,” DeCuire said. “We had it handed to us today. And for me, I’ve always thought of that as an experience for growth. We were exposed in this matchup and that will help us grow.”

Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans and his bench/ by Brooks Nuanez

Eastern Washington moves into the championship game for the fourth time since 2015, including the third year in a row in terms of championships that have been played. EWU will take on a Bobcat team coming off a thrilling, emotional 80-77 overtime win over top-seeded Southern Utah.

“They are going to bring their all because everything is out there,” Legans said. “They are a really good team. They have three all-league guys on their team. Their big guy (Jubrile Belo) is a really good player who’s had double doubles and 30 points in multiple games. They have a point guard who’s dynamic (Xavier Bishop) who makes plays and gets down hill. And then they have (Amin Adamu) who is so athletic and can hit 3s. We have to be ready.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

Montana guard Josh Vazquez (3) is trapped by Eastern Washington guard Ellis Magnuson (55) and Kim Aiken Jr. (24)/by Brooks Nuanez
Eastern Washington forward Jacob Groves (33) attacks the lane with Montana forward Kyle Owens (0) defending/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana guard Robby Beasley III (5) drives vs. Eastern Washington guard Jacob Davison (10)/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana head coach Travis DeCuire/by Brooks Nuanez
Eastern Washington bench celebrates/by Brooks Nuanez
Montan forward Derrick Carter-Hollinger (35) shoots a three point shot vs. Eastern Washington/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana guard Cameron Parker (11) drives baseline vs. Eastern Washington/by Brooks Nuanez

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.

Recommended for you