BOISE, Idaho — The rematch is set.
For the second straight year and the third time in the last five, Eastern Washington and Montana will play for the Big Sky Tournament championship.
The No. 3 Eagles took a similar path to the finals this year as a season ago, beating a talented Montana State team this year just like they dispatched a veteran Portland State team a year ago in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals each of the last two seasons, Eastern took on a Southern Utah squad fresh off eliminating the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
In the final game Friday night at CenturyLink Arena, the Eagles got several Thunderbirds in foul trouble to build a 34-17 first-half lead, then surged down the stretch after SUU cut the gap to four points on the way to a 77-61 victory.
Junior post Mason Peatling continued his campaign for tournament MVP with a second straight strong effort. The southpaw Australian scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds to pace an Eastern attack that shot 47.4 percent from the floor. Jesse Hunt, Peatling’s Aussie front-court mate, scored nine points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out six assists as a team that started 1-9 is now 16-17 overall this season following their fifth straight victory.
“I don’t think any of our guys would have it any other way,” Peatling said when asked about the championship game rematch against Montana. “We played 30 minutes of great basketball last year in the final. And in the last 11 minutes, they took it to another level and we couldn’t match it.
“This year, we have a new team, new personnel and we are looking forward to taking them on tomorrow.”
A season ago, EWU had an 11-point halftime lead in the tournament championship game before the Grizzlies ratcheted up the intensity to an elite level. UM point guard switched on to EWU point forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, locking up the all-time leading scorer in the history of the league. Montana used high-level pressure to go on a 9-0 run in the first two minutes of the second half, then pulled away to punch a ticket to the Big Dance.
Just like last season, Eastern Washington beat Montana in Cheney. Just like last season, the Eagles took the No. 3 seed into the tournament and just like last season, EWU’s third NCAA Tournament bid in school history will come if they can beat the Grizzlies.
“They go small and me and Mason hopefully take advantage of that,” Hunt said. “They have been doing that the last few games and it’s been working for them. But it’s going to be tough for them to guard us. Last year, I got hurt in this game and I really wished I could’ve been out there with my guys.”
Southern Utah, this season’s No. 7 seed, dispatched of Idaho State in the first round just like a year ago. And just like last tournament, the athletic, versatile Thunderbirds used their spread offense and ability to peak in the post-season to dismantle the No. 2 seed. Last year, it was Victor Sanders and Idaho. This year, SUU ousted Big Sky MVP Jordan Davis and the No. 2 Northern Colorado Bears.
But just like last season, SUU looked out of gas in the first half against the Eagles. Dre Marin, Andre Adams and Harrison Butler all picked up early fouls, allowing the Eagles to double up the T-Birds late in the first stanza.
“We were one of 14 at the rim in the first half. We couldn’t quite squeeze one in,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said. “We just didn’t shoot very well. That’s a big part of the game.
“Playing three games in a row shows up when shots are short. I don’t think mentally they were fatigued. But maybe, that little extra oomf, it shows up sometimes. But our guys are pretty tough.”
Cameron Oluyitan, a former Boise State, scored 13 of his team-high 19 points after halftime. Jacob Calloway added 13 points. But SUU is best when they have four to five players in double figures. SUU hit 20 of its first 30 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc in this tournament. The Thunderbirds went 7-of-21 from deep on Friday night and shot 34.5 percent from the floor overall. No player had more than Butler’s six points aside from SUU’s two leading scorers.
“We came out and played well defensively, and that really propelled us in the first half,” Legans said. “In the second half they made some shots, but our guys kept the faith, kept the belief and kept the scout of keeping with the defensive game plan.”
Montana avenged its 78-71 loss in Cheney — the Big Sky moved to a 20-game schedule this season, meaning all 11 teams played the other 10 twice, home and away — with a 75-74 win in Missoula. In that game, UM senior Bobby Moorehead forced EWU leading scorer Jacob Davison into an errant game-winning attempt at the buzzer.
Davison, an all-conference selection, suffered what has amounted to a season-ending injury the following game. Montana senior center Jamar Akoh, a leading MVP candidate when he got hurt 11 games into the Big Sky slate, has also not returned.
“It’s going to be a different match-up,” Legans said. “They are really good and well-coached. Travis (DeCuire) took his team to first place and he does a great job with his team. They come out and play really hard for him.
“We are both going to be good defensive teams, but we have to make sure we don’t feed into that pressure. They are really good and it’s going to be a lot of fun for us to out there and show what he have.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.