BOISE, Idaho — Tyler Hall came off a screen and found himself with a clean look at the hoop, the replay of a moment he’s experienced thousands of times in his stellar basketball career.
Tyler Kidd missed his second free throw, leaving the door open for Hall and the Bobcats in the most entertaining game yet at the Big Sky Tournament in Idaho’s capital city.
A little over a minute earlier, Hall nailed his second consecutive 3-pointer to tie the action for the 10th and final time against third-seeded Eastern Washington. And with his team trailing 86-84 with 12 seconds left, Hall got one last look from beyond a 3-point line he has owned like few in the history of college basketball.
Hall’s final hoist from deep, his eight attempt of the evening, hit the net and nothing else. Pesky sophomore Eastern Washington point guard Jack Perry secured the miss, drew a foul and extended the gap to the point of a rally.
The rest of an otherwise highly contested exchange proved to be a formality. Ty Gibson added two more free throws to help Eastern Washington book a second straight trip to the semifinal of the conference tournament with a 90-84 win over the sixth-seeded Bobcats at CenturyLink Arena on Thursday night.
“I came off the screen and he sagged off and I’ve shot that thing so many times in my career. It looked good and felt good but it wasn’t,” Hall said.
In head coach Shantay Legan’s second season at the helm, EWU lost 13 of its first its first 16 games before pulling out a win over eventual league champion Montana. Since then, EWU has won 13 of its last 18 games because of Legans’ top-notch ability to instill confidence in his players.
That coaching prowess combined with the savvy of veteran posts Mason Peatling and Jesse Hunt helped EWU move into the Final Four with four of the last five years. Peatling scored 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, helping foul out Montana State center Devin Kirby in 19 minutes. Hunt, EWU’s other second-team All-Big Sky selection, scored 18 points and grabbed five rebounds as EWU shot 55.2 percent from the floor and built a 34-25 advantage on the glass.
“There was some plays at the end of the game, you have to be lucky to win some game…if you tell me Tyler Hall is coming off a ball screen for a 3-pointer and he misses it, I’m happy,” Legans said.
The Eagles and Bobcats went back and forth during an entertaining and high-scoring first half between the two most dangerous offensive teams in the league.
MSU senior power forward Keljin Blevins, one of the physically most impressive players in the league, took advantage of the defense EWU played on Hall and junior point guards Harald Frey. With Hall in the game, the Eagles played a box-and-1. With Hall out of the game, EWU played a diamond-and-1. Both schemes gave Blevins, a 25-percent 3-point shooter entering the game, open looks.
He knocked down 3-of-5 from deep in the first half in scoring 14 points. After halftime, Perry shadowed Frey tightly, the total roster of the Eagles made Hall work for everything and Blevins still found himself open.
The Hot Springs, Arkansas native entered the game with 15 made 3s all season. He hit six of his 15 attempts from beyond the arc, including one with 24 seconds left to cut the EWU lead to 85-84.
“They box-and-1 Tyler and face-guarded him and that left me alone and coach always tells me to shoot when I’m open,” Blevins said. “That’s what I did.”
Blevins and Hall combined to hit 11 of MSU’s 16 3-pointers, tying a season high.
Eastern countered by pounding MSU in the paint. The Eagles grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and scored 21 second-chance points, the statistic that Fish pointed to as the key to the game. Peatling grabbed eight offensive rebounds himself.
“That was everything,” Fish said. “We hit 16 3s and you hit 16 3s, you hit 18-of-20 from the free throw line, you should win. But we just didn’t get the rebounding tonight.”
Cody Benzel has averaged five points per game in his career. The fifth-year senior has hit 195 3-pointers and shot 39.8 percent from deep in his career. In 2019, Benzel scored 55 points leading up to last weekend. A week ago, Benzel hit a fever-pitch, hitting eight 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 30 points. Two nights later, he had zero points against Weber State.
Thursday, Benzel rose to the occasion once again. He hit four of his five 3s between the first media timeout of the second half and the 10-minute mark. Each triple helped keep the Eagles at bay.
“We are a tough matchup because we had Cody go for 30 against Idaho State and shot one shot against Weber, but still played good and up and down this lineup, we can do it,” Legans said. “During timeouts, I’m asking them what they want to run because we have a really smart team.”
A Peatling bucket with 5:51 left pushed the Eastern lead to 78-69. Sam Neumann, the third MSU senior, scored four straight points to half the lead. Hall’s second-to-last 3-pointer cut the lead to 79-76 with 2:43 left. But the Eagles closed yet another contest.
“Our confidence is high and I think we have been to this same spot, but last year we came a win short of the title,” Peatling said. “We are trying to peak at the right time of the year. We’ve spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears and now it’s all coming together.”
Hall ends his career as one of 69 players with 2,500 points, including one of 33 to score that many since the NCAA added the 3-point line.
His five 3-pointers gives him 431 in his career, one of the top eight totals in college basketball history.
“The No. 1 thing I would say after being in this game for 28 years is that when you score 2,500 points, one of the best scorers of all time, most 3s made ever, these guys are his best friends and he’s as normal as can be,” Fish said. “Some days, it blows me away. I scored 100 points in my career and I bragged more about that then he has ever. That’s one hell of a basketball player.”
“One thing that is big for me is loyalty and my teammates have been big for me as a career,” Hall added. “Going anywhere else was never anything I could do. It wasn’t just me. I get all that credit. My teammates push me and they do all the dirty work behind the scenes.”
Eastern Washington moves into the semifinals against No. 7 Southern Utah, again a dark horse who posted an 83-64 win over No. 2 Northern Colorado. SUU eliminated the second-place team for the second year in a row. Eastern is gunning for its second straight championship game appearance and its third in the last five years.
“They have some of the most talent in the league,” Legans said. “They have Top 100 kids, two of them, and just like last year, they played a great game against Northern Colorado. They did a lot of things defensively that put that game away early and they gave (Big Sky MVP) Jordan Davis fits.
“We will be prepared and it will be a lot of fun.”
Hall, Neumann and Blevins defined the best team of the Fish era. The three helped the Bobcats to their first Big Sky tournament win in a decade. The Bobcats finish the season 15-17 despite Fish losing his daughter at the age of 29.
“The locker room is one of the most fun places to be because of all the stuff that is going out in the world, you can’t be fake when you walk in the locker room,” Fish said. “The locker room smokes it out. We had a great locker room. Our seniors set a tone. We did a lot of team-building stuff to get this team where it’s at.
“I’m totally indebted to these guys. Beyond everything, a month ago, I was faced with the reality of losing a child I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I didn’t know if I wanted to get out of bed. I leaned on our seniors. They constantly ask how I’m doing. They constantly ask how my wife is doing. When you ask about basketball, it was a fun, competitive group.
“But they completed the circle. These seniors are going to graduate in May. They are three guys who completed the program. They are three guys who Montana State meant the world to. To be a part of that, a small part of that, I will be appreciative forever for that.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.