Game Recap

Groves ignites, leads explosive Eastern Washington past Bobcats into first place

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Jubrile Belo lept to snare an entry pass and as he came down, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Montana State junior center stroked Tanner Groves unintentionally across the chin, dropping Eastern Washington’s big man to the floor like a ton of bricks. 

At that moment 10 minutes into EWU’s first-place showdown with Montana State in Bozeman, the host Bobcats led the red-hot Eagles 24-21. The play was reviewed and no foul play was the ultimate ruling. Groves, visibly shaken up after peeling himself off the court, exited the action for a moment. 

When the 6-foot-10 Eastern Washington junior reemerged in the action, he morphed into an unstoppable beast that helped spark his already impressive squad. 

Groves left the game for less than a minute of game time. At that point, he had four points and three rebounds. He returned to lead a dominant offensive charge by the Eagles, who once again put on an offensive clinic on the way to their sixth straight victory. 

The 6-foot-10 jumping jack is unquestionably the most improved player in the Big Sky Conference and a bonafide MVP candidate after posting a 26-point, 12-rebound double-double to lead Eastern Washington to a resounding 93-76 win over the suddenly struggling Bobcats. 

“Everything,” MSU second-year head coach Danny Sprinkle said when asked what makes the Eagles so tough to guard. “They are the best passing team in the league. If you make a mistake defensively, they make you pay for it. They have shooters all over the place and they have the best big man in the league.” 

Eastern Washington forward Tanner Groves (35) works in the post with Montana State forward Jubrile Belo (13) defending Thursday/by Brooks Nuanez

Groves’ point total ties a career high posted earlier this season against Northern Arizona. His rebounding total was the second-best mark of his junior season. He entered this year with three starts and 244 career points. He is averaging 20 points and nine rebounds per game in conference play and has five double-doubles during EWU’s 8-2 league start. 

“He’s playing like the MVP of the league to be honest,” Sprinkle said. “He’s really hard to stop. Even when you double him, he’s a great passer and they have shooters all over the place. They really put you in a predicament. We didn’t slow them down at all tonight.”

Montana State entered February with a 6-0 record in Big Sky play riding its longest winning streak in nearly 20 years. But MSU got lured into a shootout with Weber State last Thursday, giving up 96 points in an eight-point loss to the No. 7-ranked scoring offense in Division I. Two nights later, MSU gave up 82 in another eight-point loss to return home all of a sudden in a four-way tie for first place. 

Thursday, Montana State lost for the third straight time, falling from first place into a three-way tie for third with Idaho State and Weber State at 6-3 in league play. WSU lost 80-67 at Montana while Idaho State kept Idaho winless with a 69-43 win over the Vandals in Pocatello. 

The Bobcats led the league in scoring defense entering last weekend, allowing a shade under 62 points per game. Montana State has given up nearly 90 points per game over the last three contests. 

“I still want to be a defensive team and we are not even close right now,” Sprinkle said. “We have to get a lot better in the next 36 hours or it’s going to be another long night. 

Montana State guard Nick Gazales (2) finishes at the rim vs. Eastern Washington Thursday/by Brooks Nuanez

“We have to make it tough on them. We have to be able to guard one on one better. There’s a lot of things we need to do but mostly, we have to compete.”

Groves, who finished 8-of-13 from the floor, hit both of his 3-point attempts and made all nine of his free throws, wasn’t the only Eagle who exploded offensively. 

Jacob Davison, an explosive and smooth wing who earned All-Big Sky honors by averaging nearly 19 points per game, was named the preseason Big Sky MVP entering his senior year. Over the last five games, EWU head coach Shantay Legans has elected to bring Davison off the bench. 

On Thursday, Davison was nowhere to be found. EWU beat writer Ryan Collingwood of the Spokesman Review confirmed in a text to Skyline Sports, there had been no report for the reason of his absence.

With Davison not in the building, Michael Meadows and Kim Aiken Jr. picked up the slack. Meadows, a sophomore who only played two games this season before the final week of January, poured in a career-high 21 points, including scoring 17 points in the first half. He hit seven of his first 10 shots as Eastern built a 49-42 halftime lead. 

After halftime, Aiken helped Groves shoulder the scoring and rebounding load. The returning All-Big Sky player who also earned one of the five spots on the league’s preseason all-league team for the preseason favorite Eagles scored 15 of his 20 points after intermission. He also grabbed six of his eight rebounds. 

Eastern Washington, a team that hit 19 3-pointers in a single Big Sky game earlier this season, spread the floor and executed at an elite level just like the Eagles have during a six-game winning streak in which they are averaging 87 points per game. Thursday, EWU shot 53 percent from the floor and dished out 15 assists on 28 made buckets. The Eagles also nailed 10 3-pointers in 21 attempts — Aiken, Meadows and Tyler Robertson each hit a pair of triples — and knocked down 27 of 28 from the charity stripe. 

Montana State forward Tyler Patterson (11) shoots vs. Eastern Washington Thursday/by Brooks Nuanez

All the while during the offensive outburst, Legans was his trademark exuberant self, passionately and constantly galvanizing his team with his high-energy coaching style. During a few first half timeouts, Skyline Sports heard Legans’ only exchange with his players include “They can’t score with us offensively. They can’t guard us offensively.”

During one second half run, Aiken drilled a 3-pointers and Legans put on an entire charade, physically acting out a routine that ignited his already energetic bench. 

Sprinkle has talked about building his roster to employ personnel that can spread the floor, share the ball and shoot it efficiently. 

“I mean, that’s exactly how I would like to play,” Sprinkle said. “Especially the way they share the ball and move it, there is no wasted dribbles. They space you out and they do a great job of playing off each other. They let the ball find the open shot. They are the perfect offensive team. They could be the terminology of that: letting the ball find the shot.”

MSU senior guard Amin Adamu led the Bobcat scoring attack with 16 points, but finished 6-of-18 from the floor on a night when MSU shot 36.6 percent as a team. Nick Gazelas came off the bench to hit four of his first five shots and scored all 11 of his points before halftime. Mike Hood scored 12 points off the bench as well. Hood and Gazelas combined to hit four of MSU’s nine made 3-pointers in 25 attempts. 

But at the end of the day, Eastern Washington’s machine-like offensive attack helped the Eagles assume first place alone for at least a few days. 

“They have been like this for the past seven, eight years. It’s hard for them to go into an offensive lull because they have five scorers on the floor at all times. When they are getting clean shots, they are going to make them 50 percent of the time,” Sprinkle said. “A lull for them is going 2-for-5. And you have to score with them. And if all of a sudden, you score with them offensively, they just make you pay. They just keep coming in waves. 

Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle coaching in huddle vs. Eastern Washington/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State and Eastern Washington clash again at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on Saturday.

“We have to find a way Saturday at noon to get multiple stops in a row,” Sprinkle said. 

“Good teams move on. In the locker room talk after the game, I didn’t say anything. I just said, ‘Hey, we have another game at noon, we have the same team you guys just played. We know what to do. We will go home, watch the film, meet up tomorrow. Let it sting until midnight and we have to get better tomorrow.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

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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