Head coach Shantay Legans got his pre-Christmas wish.
For the second-straight game, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team led from start to finish and ended its non-conference campaign with a 94-66 victory over Providence (formerly Great Falls) Wednesday (Dec. 20) at Reese Court.
A total of 11 Eagles played and every player scored and had at least one rebound, with three Eagles scoring in double figures. Junior Jesse Hunt had his second career double-double with a career-high 16 points and 11 rebounds, and senior Bogdan Bliznyuk chipped in another near outstanding all-around game with 24 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals.
Junior Ty Gibson hit four 3-pointers and had 12 points as the Eagles shot a season-best 56.7 percent from the field and had a season-high scoring output, including a season-best 50-point second half. The Eagles led for the last 37:56 of the game, and had dominating advantages of 18-0 in fastbreak points and 50-28 in points in the paint.
After a break for Christmas, the Eagles will resume practices in preparation for their league openers. Eastern will play at red-hot Northern Colorado on Dec. 29 and then play at defending Big Sky regular season and tournament champion North Dakota on New Year's Eve.
"I've been in their shoes – it's Christmas time and they are ready to go home," said Legans of his team's final non-conference outing. "But we clamped down and played really good in the second half. I was proud of how we played."
Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 5-8 on the season and enter league play with a two-game winning streak.
* The Argos are 7-5 on the season following an 85-74 loss to Montana State-Billings on Dec. 8 in their last game prior to visiting Cheney. The game versus the Eagles was an exhibition for Providence, which has already lost to Utah State (98-54) and California (81-52) in two other exhibitions. Providence, a member of the NAIA and the Frontier Conference, was defeated handily last year by Eastern by a 103-76 score.
What it Means . . .
* After two home games, the Eagles return to the road where they spent most of the months of November and December. Now, the stakes are higher with the start of Big Sky Conference play. In the preseason media poll, Eastern was picked to finish sixth in the league – just ahead of No. 5 UND and just ahead of No. 7 UNC. The poll of coaches in the league had UNC at No. 4, with North Dakota sixth and EWU seventh.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern heads for Greeley, Colo., next week to play Northern Colorado on Dec. 29 in a game that starts at 6 p.m. Pacific time. The Bears are currently 9-3 this season after a 91-84 victory on Dec. 19 at Wyoming, a team EWU lost in overtime to by a 93-88 score on Dec. 12. The Bears also won 63-62 at a neutral site over South Dakota, a team EWU lost to 75-73 on the road. Northern Colorado plays at UNLV on Dec. 22 prior to playing the Eagles. Eastern also lost on the road to the Runnin' Rebels by a 91-76 score on Nov. 17.
* Eastern then plays at North Dakota, the defending Big Sky regular season and tournament champs, on New Year's Eve at 2 p.m. Pacific time. North Dakota is 4-7 after suffering a narrow 89-83 overtime loss at nationally-ranked Gonzaga on Dec. 16. The Fighting Hawks don't play again until hosting Idaho on Dec. 29.
Keys to Game . . .
* Every available Eagle player scored and each had at least one rebound, with nine playing between 14 and 31 minutes. Eight EWU players finished with at least six points. Eastern had a dominating 42-27 rebounding edge, including 13 offensive boards which equaled a season high. The Eagles turned those into a 15-7 advantage in second-chance points.
Turning Point . . .
* The Eagles jumped out to a double-digit lead barely over six minutes into the game, and then used a 9-0 run to lead by as many as 15 in the first half. The Eagles steadily opened a 20-point margin in the second half, eventually leading by 30 in the last minute. One game earlier, in a wire-to-wire home win over CSUN, the Eagles led by as 28 in an 86-58 romp.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk, this week's Big Sky Conference Player of the Week, sank 9-of-14 shots from the field and 6-of-7 free throws to finish with 24 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. He now has five performances this season of at least 20 points, and 31 in his 116-game career.
* Junior Jesse Hunt had his second career double-double, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds go along with two assists and two steals. He had five of EWU's 13 offensive rebounds and made 6-of-10 field goals and 4-of-5 free throws.
* Junior Ty Gibson made 4-of-7 shots from the 3-point stripe to close with 12 points.
* Senior graduate transfer Benas Griciunas chipped in eight points, five rebounds and a blocked shot.
* True freshman Richard Polanco also had eight points and contributed three rebounds, while fellow freshman newcomer Jack Perry finished with seven points and four assists.
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern made over 50 percent of its shots for the second-straight game, making a season-best 56.7 percent against the Argos. The Eagles sank 62 percent in the second half as they eclipsed the 51.5 percent they had three days earlier versus CSUN. Eastern has now had its four best shooting outings of the season in its last four games. Defensively, Eastern held Providence to 41.5 percent shooting from the field. The Eagles are now 5-0 when they out-shoot their opponents and 0-8 when they don't.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk is now just 143 points from ending what could be a short-lived record. In 116 career games (14th in school history), Bliznyuk has a current total of 1,660 points – 81 from second and 143 from the school record. Next on the list is Ron Cox (1,741 from 1974-77) and former teammate Venky Jois (school-record 1,803 points from 2013-16). In addition, if Bliznyuk plays 12 more games he will equal the record of 128 set by his former teammate Felix Von Hofe from 2014-17.
Notables . . .
* The Eagles are now 3-0 against Providence, with both wins coming since 2015 when the school was known as Great Falls. Eastern has hit the century mark in both, winning 103-76 on Dec. 8, 2016, and 104-64 romp on Dec. 6, 2015.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Providence: "Providence played a great game. Coach Anthony Owens did a great job of getting his team prepared and ready. We got away from them at the end, but they play really hard and have some talented players. They'll be good in their conference. It was fun playing against them."
On Second Half: "I was excited by the way our team came out in the second half and executed. We shot well, and I was most pleased with that. Sometimes when you play games like this your defense comes up a little short and don't do what you want them to do, but in the second half we played good defense. We held them to 40 percent in the second half, but they also shot 50 percent from three so we have to get better at that."
On Offense and Defense: "Offensively we're starting to hit our peak and defensively we know what we need to do. When we are locked in and we do a good job with penetration, I think we have one of the better defensive teams in the league because of our size. I like that Ty is getting up seven threes – we'd like to get him up to 10 a game but he hasn't gotten that yet. We want Bogdan to get triple-doubles every game and he's been close. And then we want our other players to contribute."
On Captains: "Bogdan and Ty are our captains and they keep our team level-headed – not too high and not too low. They keep us steady, and it makes it easy to coach with them on our team."