Game Recap

EWU races past Bobcats to weekend sweep in Bozeman


BOZEMAN, Montana — Eastern Washington does not only has one of the most electrifying and efficient offenses in the league. The Eagles build momentum through an exuberant energy. And the tone setter is Shantay Legans, EWU’s relentlessly passionate head coach.

Less than 48 hours after letting EWU run up and down in a 93-76 victory, Montana State matched Eastern’s energy during the first half on Saturday afternoon at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

But Eastern Washington continued to whip the ball around the perimeter and find the open man with uncanny ease. And with each made shot, the celebration by Legans and his bench got more animated.

At one point, EWU hit a 3-pointer right in front of the Eagles’ bench — the visitors drilled 13 triples on Saturday —causing an outburst that resulted in an Eagle spilling water all over the scorer’s table next to where players substitute into the game.

By the time the energetic explosion finished, EWU was on a 25-7 run to open the second half and fully in control of the game. A deficit that stood at 36-33 at intermission turned into a lopsided affair as the Eagles led 64-40 with 11:18 left in the game.

“Their bench, they bring energy for the players and their players on the court, they bring energy,” MSU second-year head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “It’s easy to have energy when you are hitting 3s and scoring and every kid, that’s what they do.

“The ball is like an energy pill. When they have the ball, they have energy. When it goes into the hoop, they even have more energy. They have a great culture and they really play for each other. They are tough to deal with.

By the time the onslaught was over — Steele Venters hit Eastern’s 13th 3-pointer with 48 seconds remaining — the Eagles cruised to an 85-69 victory.

“Our guys did a great job of coming out and playing really hard for the second game in row,” EWU head coach Shantay Legans said. “Our guys did a good job defensively. They really bought into the defensive game plan, especially in the second half. First half, Montana State was getting whatever they wanted with (Jubrile) Belo in the paint. But we adjusted and bought in.”

Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans vs. Montana State Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez

The weekend sweep helps Eastern Washington maintain its status as the hottest team in the Big Sky Conference. The reigning league champions have won seven straight to sit at 9-2 in conference play. The Eagles are averaging 86 points per game during the streak, including 91 per over the last five.

“We are playing consistent,” Legans said. “A lot of teams are going through it but our team is a rhythm team. We do a lot of concept stuff. We don’t run a lot of sets. Our guys just get to play basketball. I want them to go out there and play. They are skilled and when they are free, we roll.”

EWU had to take 14 days off because of a Covid issue earlier this season. Upon return, Eastern didn’t find a flow because another 10-day quarantine interrupted the season.

“When you have opportunities to practice and play like we finally are, you can show your team where they can make the extra pass. Spring, summer, preseason, preseason games, that’s what we are used to.

“Able to practice a few weeks in a row, get into a good rhythm with the guys, conditioning is huge. You have to have energy, you have to bring energy.”

Montana State is on an opposite trajectory. The Bobcats started league play 6-0, marking the program’s best Big Sky since 1987. But MSU has lost four straight following Saturday’s result.

“There’s highs and lows to every season,” MSU senior guard Xavier Bishop said. “You can’t panic or anything. We could go on a six-game, seven-game winning streak just like before. Right now, we are in a little bit of a slump right now but I’m confident in my guys we will figure it out.”

A team that allowed 62 points per game during its first seven-game winning streak in nearly 20 years has struggled mightily on that side each of the last two weekends. MSU gave up 176 points in a pair of losses at Weber State last weekend before giving up 178 points this weekend. During the four-game losing streak, Montana State is giving up 88.5 points per game.

Montana senior forward Abdul Mohamed (0) attacks the rim vs. Eastern Washington Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez

“They are just really hard to guard,” MSU second-year head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “They are all skilled and they make the right plays. They move the ball until the right shot and when you have five guys who can shoot the ball the way they do or score, it’s almost every time down the court they are getting a good shot.

“In the first half, we did that. Our ball movement was way better than Thursday. But we couldn’t string together multiple stops. It’s like one of those dams that’s building up, building up and finally it just broke.”

Montana State managed to shoot 50 percent after halftime, but hit just one 3-pointer in seven attempts in the second half. Meanwhile, the Eagles nailed eight triples, including two each from Venters and rising start Michael Meadows.

The latter followed up his career-high 21-point outing on Thursday with 15 points, including 11 in the second half. Junior enforcer Kim Aiken Jr. continued his all-conference campaign, scoring 12 points and ripping down a game-high 13 rebounds to lead EWU’s 34-28 advantage on the glass.

A night after having a monster 26-point, 13-rebound double-double, Eastern junior big man Tanner Groves converted his first six shots and scored 14 of his team-high 16 points in the first half. MSU adjusted its defense to limit Groves’ touches in the second half but that resulted in the 3-pointer barrage. EWU’s eight made 3-pointers came on 13 attempts (61.5 percent).

“We got some really good shots after halftime but Sprinkle does an unbelievable job with his team,” said Legans, who won his 50th Big Sky game in 69 league outings during his four seasons at the helm for EWU. “He’s searching for a couple of things but they do a good job and they slowed us down big time in the second half.

“We hit some 3s, which really spread them out a little bit. Their pressure really bothered us early. Hitting some of those 3s after our drives were huge, finding the extra pass really hurt them in the second half.

“Other than that, they really took us out of our offense. He’s a helluva coach and that’s a helluva team. To come out and beat a team like that twice is a big statement for our team because I’ve watched that team play all year and they are one of the top teams in the Big Sky.”

Ellis Magnuson and Tyler Robertson scored 11 and 10 points, respectively for an EWU team that swept the weekend despite missing preseason league MVP Jacob Davison (non-Covid illness).

Eastern Washington senior forward Tanner Groves (35) posts up Montana State forward Jubrile Belo (13) Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez

“They are a really good offensive team and what makes them so hard is their pace,” Bishop said. “Guys flying around, guys cutting…they do the little things so well, hitting guys on screens, hitting shooters. They are a good team. Credit to them – they made shots, they made plays and we just need to continue to get better.

“We just have to figure it out.”

Montana State center Jubrile Belo led the Bobcats with 11 points but was largely absent in the second half, scoring just three points. Bishop scored 10 points as did backup guard Mike Hood. But by the time the deficit reached 24 points, Sprinkle elected to empty his bench, giving players like Finn Fleute, Bilal Shabazz and Jesse Owens more playing time than usual.

Eastern Washington looks like the team to beat in the Big Sky a year after winning the league crown outright. The Eagles entered the season as the preseason favorites and are now three games up on Southern Utah (6-2) in the win column. EWU plays a home and home with bitter rival Montana next week. The Grizzlies were the only team to sweep the Eagles during last year’s 16-4 conference finish.

Montana State is now searching for answers after lasting to become the final Big Sky team without a conference loss. The Bobcats, who sit alone in fifth place in the standings, play a home-and-home with Idaho State next week. ISU is the surprise of the league, posting a 7-3 mark to this point in the season.

“We know who we are,” Bishop said. “We are still confident, we still believe in ourselves and we will be fine.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

Montana State freshman forward Tyler Patterson (11) shoots a three point shot vs. Eastern Washington Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State junior forward Jubrile Belo (13) double teamed by Eastern Washington defenders Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez
Eastern Washington sophomore guard Michael Meadows (25) shoots for the elbow vs. Montana State Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State senior guard Amin Adamu (5) rises to the rim vs. Eastern Washington Saturday/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.

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