Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk came up huge when the Eagles needed a boost the most on the road.
Twelve unanswered points by the Big Sky Conference player of the year candidate in the second half helped the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team record a 77-64 road victory over North Dakota on Sunday (Dec. 31) for EWU's first-ever victory in Grand Forks, N.D.
The win snapped a seven-game road losing streak for the Eagles, and extended a five-game losing skid overall for the Fighting Hawks, the defending Big Sky regular season and league champions. The Eagles improved to 1-1 in the league, while North Dakota – which will move to the Summit Conference next season -- slipped to 0-2.
Eastern held UND without a field goal for nearly eight minutes in a pivotal juncture in the second half that helped the Eagles take an 18-point advantage with 3:21 to play.
"It is great to win here," said first-year Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. "It was our last conference game here, so the seniors and new players were excited to play this game."
Bliznyuk scored 29 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the field and 4-of-5 from the free throw line in a game of runs. He made all six of his shots in the first half when EWU opened a 42-28 halftime lead thanks to runs of 7-0, 7-0, 7-1 and 12-0. He single-handedly turned a three-point lead into a 15-point bulge with his 12-0 scoring spurt late in the second half.
"Gee, can you say anything else about Bogdan?" said Legans. "He played a great game today. He took the ball and just played. After that, other guys followed his lead and made plays."
Junior Jesse Hunt scored 16 points for the third consecutive game, and senior Sir Washington had his first double figure scoring game of the season with 12. Junior Cody Benzel chipped in five points and career highs with five rebounds and four steals. The Eagles out-shot the Fighting Hawks 54 percent to 43 percent, and had season-highs with 21 turnovers forced, 15 steals and 28 points off turnovers.
"Our guys have figured out their roles and are a really excited bunch," said Legans. "They are happy we are ringing in the new year with a win. It was great seeing our team come out and play the way they played."
The two teams will play again in Cheney on Jan. 25. Eastern's next game is at home on Thursday, Jan. 4 at 6 p.m. Pacific time versus Portland State, which has the highest RPI among Big Sky teams at No. 86 despite opening its Big Sky schedule with a loss at Sacramento State.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 6-9 on the season and 1-1 in the Big Sky, having entered league play with a two-game winning streak. Eastern was coming off resounding 28-point home victories to improve to 3-0 at Reese Court on the season. An 86-58 victory over CSUN (Cal State Northridge) on Dec. 17 snapped a five-game losing skid – all on the road – then EWU beat Providence (formerly Great Falls) 94-66 on Dec. 20. Eastern led from start to finish in both – and by double-digits for 55:50 out of a total of 80 minutes. Eastern led by double digits for the last 27:15 against CSUN and the last 25:15 versus Providence.
* Now 4-9 overall and 0-2 in the league, North Dakota lost its opener at home to Idaho by a 74-57 score, going 5:54 without a point and 10:25 without a field goal in the first half. The Vandals are the preseason favorite in the league. It was the first game for the Fighting Hawks wince Dec. 16 when they suffered a narrow 89-83 overtime loss at nationally-ranked Gonzaga. North Dakota hasn't won since Nov. 28.
What it Means . . .
* North Dakota finds itself in last place in the league after two games of an 18-game conference schedule, while EWU enters a three-game homestand 1-1. A year ago Eastern battled UND to the end for the Big Sky title, and ended up second in the regular season before advancing to the semifinals of the league tournament. Eastern was 13-5 in the league and North Dakota was 14-4, and the Fighting Hawks went on to win the tournament title and lose 100-82 to Arizona in the NCAA Tournament. 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. The Eagles are coming off a third-straight appearance in a national postseason tournament, and were 22-12 overall a year ago.
What's Next . . .
* The Eagles return home for their first back-to-back-to-back homes games of the season, but begin with a big task in beating a Portland State team ranked 52nd in the RPI prior to losing its league opener 80-75 at Sacramento State on Dec. 30. The Vikings are now 86th in the RPI, and are 11-4 on the season and 0-1 in the league. The Vikings have recorded wins over Cal, Stanford, Utah State, and its four losses came at the hands of teams (Duke by 18, Butler by 2, Oregon by nine) who are a collective 35-8 on the season (13-1/12-3/10-4 respectively) through Dec. 30.
Keys to Game . . .
* Eastern's 12-0 run in the first half and 12-0 spurt in the second half were the keys to the 13-point victory. Eastern had a 12-0 run in the first half to open a 42-26 lead and led by 14 at halftime. The Fighting Hawks opened the second half on a 19-8 run to pull within three with 10:38 left, but that would be their last points in 5:08 and last field goal for a 7:44 span. Meanwhile, Eastern used the second 12-0 run to eventually open a 67-49 advantage with 3:21 to play.
Turning Point . . .
* Ahead just 50-47, Bogdan Bliznyuk hit a 3-pointer with 7:02 remaining to ignite a 12-0 run in which he scored all 12 points. He followed with a conventional 3-point play, and his basket with 5:18 left gave EWU a 62-47 advantage. He then assisted on a 3-pointer by Cody Benzel with 3:21 remaining that gave Eastern a 67-49 lead.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk made 12-of-18 shots from the field and finished with 29 points, four rebounds, two assists and a pair of steals. He now has seven performances this season of at least 20 points, and 33 in his 118-game career.
* For the fourth-straight game – all as a starter -- junior Jesse Hunt had a career-high scoring output. He finished with 16, and had also scored 16 in his previous two games, and 14 in his first start of the season on Dec. 17 against CSUN.
* Senior Sir Washington had his highest-scoring output of the season, making 4-of-7 from the field and 4-of-5 from the free throw line to finish with 12 points.
* Junior Ty Gibson made both of his 3-point attempts and finished with eight points and a pair of steals.
* Junior Cody Benzel made his first start of the season and eighth of his career and had five points and had career highs with five rebounds and four steals.
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern's 21 turnovers forced were a season high by three, and the team's 15 steals were significantly more than the previous high of nine. The result was 28 points off turnovers, eclipsing the previous highs of 21 versus Walla Walla and 18 versus a NCAA Division I opponent (UNLV).
* Eastern was dominating from the field in the first half, sinking 64 percent of its shots (16-of-25), including 4-of-8 shots from the 3-point line. The Fighting Hawks sank just 36 percent (10-of-28) in the opening half and made only 5-of-18 3-pointers for 28 percent. Bogdan Bliznyuk made all six of his shots to score 12 points in the first half, with Jesse Hunt contributing 11. The result were Eastern runs of 7-0, 7-0, 7-1 and 12-0. The first two runs helped Eastern take leads of 12-8 and 19-11, and the latter run resulted in a 42-26 advantage late in the half. The Eagles led by 14 at halftime.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk went over the 1,700-point mark in his career versus UND and is now just 91 points from ending what could be a short-lived record. In 118 career games (sixth in school history), Bliznyuk has a current total of 1,712 points – 29 from second and 91 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 10 more games he will equal the record of 128 set by his former teammate Felix Von Hofe from 2014-17. He is also now just eight free throws from the career record of 386 held by 10-year NBA veteran Rodney Stuckey (2006-07).
Notables . . .
* Although notoriously cold in the winter, Grand Forks was particularly frigid during the weekend visit. The temperature was at minus-14 degrees when the Vandals and Fighting Hawks played on Dec. 29, with a high of minus-19 and low of minus-28 forecast for Saturday with wind chill making it feel another 20 degrees lower than that. It warmed up to a minus-14 on Sunday when EWU played UND.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Player Performances: "Our guys played terrific. Cody Benzel had four steals and five rebounds after we inserted him into the lineup. He didn't shoot the ball well, but he played great defense. Jesse Hunt had another big game and Sir had his best game of his senior season. Sir came in and stepped up. He played great defense, made his free throws when they counted and he made some shots at the rim. That was a big step for him in the right direction."
On 16 Turnovers: "This was a bad turnover game for us but we still won by double digits – that says a lot about our team. We made free throws and made them when they counted."
On Jesse Hunt: "He'll be an all-league player if he keeps doing this. He's playing great and he's guarding guys who are bigger than him. He's tough and he gets a lot of that from his father, who played at Portland and was a tough player. Jesse is following right in those footsteps and is a tough kid. He plays that way and shows his emotions on his sleeve -- I love that. He does a great job and he stops the other team's best post player."
On North Dakota Pressure: "Our offense kind of slowed down in the second half at times. North Dakota pressured us, and instead of attacking the pressure we tried to slow it down and hold it. We just have to keep going and make plays. We are going to learn from that, because we have a big one Thursday against a team (Portland State) that presses for the whole 40 minutes. This was a good experience for us to go against that today."
On Keys to Win: "Our transition defense and getting back were important, and holding Geno Crandall to 13 points and forcing him to have six turnovers. We turned them over 21 times going against an all-league guard. That was a really good job by our defense. We picked up the pressure a little bit too and learned a little bit after our first game against Northern Colorado. We feel like we can use a little bit of our length, size and smarts to force turnovers. We had 15 steals as a team and that's pretty good. We didn't get out and pressure too much, but we turned it up when we needed to."