It was a day for stepping up for several Eagles.
Junior Cody Benzel led four Eagles in double figures with career highs of 25 points and seven 3-pointers as the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team continued to remain unbeaten at home with an 82-67 victory against Sacramento State on Saturday (Jan. 6) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Besides Benzel – a 2014 graduate of Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash. -- Benas Griciunas had a career-high 16 points, Jack Perry had 15 and Mason Peatling contributed 12. Those four players had entered with scoring averages of 4.5, 4.9, 5.4 and 5.4 per game, respectively. Senior Sir Washington chipped in 10 points after entering with a 5.3 average.
With EWU's top three scorers – including injured forward Jesse Hunt – combining for just two points in the game – the contributions were particularly impressive in EWU's seventh-straight victory in the series against the Hornets. Big Sky Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk was double and triple teamed by the Hornets and finished with just two points, but he contributed nine assists, seven rebounds and three steals. The senior was able to move into second in school history in career scoring with 1,742 points, one better than Ron Cox with 1,741 from 1974-77 and 61 away from the all-time record.
"In the wake of Jesse getting hurt, Benas played great, Mason played great and Cody played great," said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. "Bogdan had one of his best passing games of his career because he was getting triple-teamed every time he got the ball. They took Bogdan away, and he did a really good job facilitating for other guys."
For the third-straight game, Eastern had a double-digit advantage in field goal percentage. Eastern sank 55 percent – including a blistering 62 percent in the second half when the Eagles made 8-of-14 3-pointers – while Sac State finished at 44 percent.
"A lot of teams will guard Bogdan like that, but it's going to hurt them because our guys can really shoot the ball," added Legans. "If that happens, Bogdan will maybe end up the all-time assist leader also."
Benzel got hot in the second half and netted 15 points, including a trio of 3-pointers in runs of 8-0 and 6-0 to give EWU a 21-point lead. The Eagles had used runs of 10-0 and 9-0 in the first half to help open a 12-point lead at halftime. The Hornets led just three times in the first half for a total of 57 seconds.
The two teams will play again in Sacramento on Feb. 1. Eastern's next game is at home next Friday (Jan. 12) against league favorite Idaho at approximately 7:30 following the EWU-UI women's game which begins at 5:05 p.m.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 8-9 on the season and 3-1 in the Big Sky, and have now won five of their last six games. The Eagles had opened their three-game homestand on Thursday (Jan. 4), taking a 13-point second-half lead against the Portland State and holding on for an 81-74 win. Unbeaten at home this season at 5-0, the Eagles are 51-9 (85 percent) at Reese Court in the past five seasons since 2013-14.
* The Hornets were coming off a narrow 69-68 loss at Idaho in which Sac State held an 11-point lead with 8:45 remaining in the game. Although just 4-12 on the season and 1-2 in Big Sky play, the Hornets recorded a huge win at home when it upset Portland State 80-75 on Dec. 30. At the time, PSU was the top-ranked Big Sky team in RPI at No. 52 and had recorded 10 preseason victories.
What it Means . . .
* The Eagles protected their home court with the overwhelming victory and kept pace in the Big Sky Conference standings with a number of other teams who entered Saturday's action with just one loss. Eastern is 5-0 at home this season while Sac State is now 0-11 away from home (0-7 on opponent home courts and 0-4 at neutral sites).
What's Next . . .
* On Friday, Jan. 12, Eastern will host an Idaho team picked to win the Big Sky title. The Vandals are 10-5 overall and also 2-1 in the league heading into action Saturday evening versus Portland State. The Idaho game will take place at approximately 7:30 p.m. at Reese Court following the EWU women's game which begins at 5:05 p.m. In the eight meetings since Idaho re-joined the Big Sky Conference in the 2014-15 season, EWU is 6-2 but the average winning margin for the winning team is just 6.6 points. Included was an EWU sweep in 2016-17 versus the Vandals, with EWU winning 69-62 in Moscow and 77-67 in Cheney. The Eagles have won their last three games at Reese Court versus the Vandals, and haven't lost there since an 81-79 overtime loss on Dec. 6, 2012, in the last non-conference meeting before the Vandals rejoined the Big Sky.
Keys to Game . . .
* Eighty of Eastern's 82 points were scored by players not named Bliznyuk, Gibson and Hunt. Two of Eastern's top three scorers for the season – senior Bogdan Bliznyuk and junior Ty Gibson -- had only two points combined in the first half and were scoreless in the second half. In addition, second-leading scorer Jesse Hunt didn't play because of a foot injury suffered the day before in practice. It was billed as a match-up of two of the league's top-scoring forwards squared off at Reese Court, but they combined for just 16 points. The Hornets featured 6-foot-7, 220-pound Justin Strings, the reigning Big Sky Conference Player of the Week. He had scored 51 points in two league games thus far and was averaging 17.7 on the season, and had 14 on 6-of-15 shooting against EWU while being defended much of the game by Bliznyuk. A 6-6, 215-pound senior, Bliznyuk attempted just five shots and made one, having entered the game averaging 19.5 points on the season, including a league-leading 26.7 in three Big Sky games.
Turning Point . . .
* Eastern used 20 points from three post players to take a 12-point advantage at halftime, with two stretches of outstanding defense leading to EWU scoring runs. Eastern had an early 10-0 run, with eight points scored by sophomore Mason Peatling as the Eagles held Sac State without a point for 3:34. The second run helped open a seven-point lead for the Eagles, as EWU scored nine unanswered points while holding the Hornets scoreless for 3:08. Eastern's Richard Polanco hit a 3-pointer late in the half to give EWU a 39-27 lead at intermission. In the second half, Cody Benzel started and ended an 8-0 run with 3-pointers, then capped a 6-0 run with a triple to give EWU a 64-43 lead with 8:44 left. Eastern led by no less than 12 the rest of the way.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior Cody Benzel made 7-of-10 shots from the field – all 3-pointers – to finish with 25 points. That eclipsed his previous high of 23 set against Great Falls in 2015 when he was a freshman.
* Senior graduate transfer Benas Griciunas equaled his career high with 16 points, making all seven of his shots from the field. He also had five rebounds and three blocked shots.
* True freshman Jack Perry made a pair of 3-pointers and finished with 14 points and a game-high six assists.
* Sophomore Mason Peatling made his first start since Nov. 12 and it took barely over seven minutes for him to hit the double-figure mark. He finished with 12 on 6-of-9 shooting from the field in 13 minutes of action, giving him a total of four double figure performances this season and eight in his 47-game career. Having missed four game in December with a wrist injury, he scored a career-high 19 at South Dakota on Dec. 10.
* Senior Sir Washington chipped in 10 points, eight in the second half, as he finished with his second double figure scoring performance of the season and 17th of his career.
* Junior Ty Gibson had scored in double figures in six of his last nine games, but missed all five shots – all 3-pointers – he took in the game.
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern made 55 percent of its shots compared to just 44 percent for the Hornets, and the Eagles sank 10-of-25 3-pont shots (40.0 percent) compared to 3-of-18 (17 percent) for Sac State. The Eagles are 8-0 when they out-shoot their opponents and 0-9 when they don't, and have had their top eight shooting performances of the year in the last eight games. After making only 39 percent of their shots through nine games this season (3-6 record), Eastern has made 45.6 percent or better in the last eight (5-3). Eastern has made at least 50 percent of its shots in four of the last six games, winning in each of those four contests.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk now has 1,742 career points in 120 career games, moving ahead of Ron Cox (2005-18) for second on the school's scoring list and now just 61 behind the record of 1,803 set by Venky Jois (2013-16). Bliznyuk currently ranks 16th in the 55-year history of the Big Sky, only 45 points behind North Dakota's Quinton Hooker with 1,787 in four seasons from 2014-17. Jois is No. 14 on the Big Sky list. Bliznyuk didn't shoot any free throws versus Sacramento State, but was 13-of-13 against PSU on Jan. 4 to give him 391 free throws in his career. That surpassed the school record of 386 set by 10-year NBA veteran Rodney Stuckey in two seasons from 2006-07. Bliznyuk is 22 field goal attempts from that EWU record as well. In addition, Bliznyuk needs eight more games he will equal the record of 128 set by his former teammate Felix Von Hofe from 2014-17.
Notables . . .
* Since Eastern became a member of NCAA Division I in the 1983-84 season, the Eagles are now 34-14 versus Sacramento State, and the two schools did not play against each other prior to that. The Eagles have won 27 of their last 37 games against the Hornets, and have a 21-3 record versus Sacramento State in Cheney, are 11-11 in Sacramento and 2-0 on a neutral court.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Winning at Home: "It's fun to play at home. That's a big deal for us and we want to protect our home court. We came out and our guys played with an edge. A lot of teams picked us to be seventh in the league and that's something our guys talk about in the locker room. We want to come out and play, and beat teams. It's a little bit of motivation but we don't need that much because we are at home. Our players came out and executed the game plan."
On Defense Against Bliznyuk: "Today that left Cody open a lot, and he did a good job to get open and create shots for himself. He was playing well off Bogdan today. Teams think if they stop Bogdan they can win, so they are going to do everything they can. If I was a coach against him I would do the same thing – somebody else has to beat us. Today Cody and our other players stepped up and made shots. When you get that opportunity you have to take it, and Cody did a good job of getting that done."
On Bliznyuk Defending Sac State's Justin Strings: "Bogdan did a good job of defending him. I think he's one of the better defenders in the Big Sky, but that gets overlooked because of all the offensive things he does. He does a great job defending the other team's better big players. He wants that challenge all the time so we give it to him."
On Having Players Like Bliznyuk: "It's good, and it's always great to have players like Bogdan. He can do everything for us. I've said it all the time that when we have guys like this on the team it's easy to coach – they are smart, they play hard, they are getting better every day and they come in with great attitudes. It makes life easy."
On Griciunas: "He gave us a great lift. We challenged the bigs early because Jesse has been in foul trouble and now he's hurt. Benas came in and stepped up. We challenged him early and he played great basketball – he ran the floor, he caught and scored the ball and he was a great defensive player. He's been up-and-down this season, but I hope this is a game that gets him in the right direction of playing with a lot of confidence."
On Injury to Jesse Hunt: "He has a sprained ankle and I think he has a chance to maybe get back for the Idaho game. We'll see where he's at after we get some x-rays looked at. We'll find out what it is, but right now it's day-to-day. Mason came back with a great game and stepped up with Jesse out."
It was a day for stepping up for several Eagles.