The Eagles gave themselves a chance despite a cold-shooting night, and that’s progress to Eastern head coach Jim Hayford.
Montana led from start to finish and had 10 3-pointers to Eastern’s five, and went on to hold off Eastern Washington University 82-77 in a Big Sky Conference men’s basketball game Saturday (Feb. 8) at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.
Eastern rallied from a 61-48 deficit with 8:31 to play, but Montana made just enough free throws in the final two minutes to knock off EWU. The Grizzlies missed five, but made 11 – including a pair with three seconds left after the Eagles had whittled the lead down to a single possession game.
“We battled from 16 down to three points,” said Hayford. “For us to shoot 5-of-22 from the 3-point line -- and at the end be in a one-possession game at Montana -- means we’re growing as a team. When we didn’t shoot the ball well from three earlier this season, we didn’t have any chance to win.”
Eastern made only 39 percent of its shots in the game, including just 33 percent in the first half. Montana made 45 percent and was 10-of-24 from beyond the arc.
The Grizzlies opened a 16-point lead early in the second half and held on for the win. At one point in the second half, the Grizzlies had made 9-of-19 treys while EWU was just 1-of-12.
“We gave it all we had, but we didn’t have enough,” said Hayford.
Sophomore Tyler Harvey led the Eagles with 24 points after entering the game leading the Big Sky Conference in scoring both overall (21.0) and in league games only (22.8), and ranking in the top 16 nationally in three categories. However, the Big Sky leader in 3-pointers per game was just 1-of-8 from beyond the 3-point arc. He finished 11-of-11 from the free throw line and 5-of-10 from inside the 3-point arc.
Junior point guard Drew Brandon had a career-high 19 points to go along with seven rebounds and three assists. But like Harvey, he struggled from the 3-point line (0-of-4) and was perfect from the free throw line (5-of-5).
Junior Martin Seiferth scored nine of his points in the first half and finished with 12 points and nine rebounds. He had a blocked shot and Venky Jois had two as both players equaled the school record for career blocked shots. Both have 99 to share the record for the time being with Paul Butorac (2004-07).
Eastern had its two-game losing streak snapped and is now 5-7 in the Big Sky and 10-13 overall. Overall, the Eagles are 1-11 on opponent home courts, 7-2 at home and 2-0 on neutral courts this season. Eastern returns home to face Sacramento State (Feb. 13) and Northern Arizona (Feb. 15) this week.
The Grizzlies, who defeated Portland State 82-76 in overtime on Thursday in Missoula, are now 12-9 overall and 7-5 in the league.
The Eagles were coming off a 79-50 rout of Montana State, making Eastern a perfect 5-for-5 in football and men’s basketball games against the Bobcats and Grizzlies during the 2013-14 school year. Eastern has never won more than four of the six meetings in any previous season, and the only time EWU has gone 4-0 against UM and MSU on the court came in 1990.
Earlier this season, the Eagles beat Montana 69-62 and Montana State 77-72 at home, setting the stage for this week’s challenge.
“We wanted to bring something special back to Eastern,” said Hayford. “We had some guys with tears in their eyes because they really wanted to do that. We were in a position to do something where we could add to the good work of the football team. That’s who we want to be as a program, and we didn’t want a split.”
Eastern fell behind 41-32 at halftime, with Montana making 7-of-14 3-pointers and the Eagles sinking just 1-of-8 and missing five free throws. The Eagles made 11-of-12 charity shots in the second half, and 4-of-14 3-point attempts.
“They played really well in the first half,” said Hayford of the Grizzlies, who won for the 10th-straight time against EWU in Missoula. “I was glad it was only single digits at halftime. We were missing some free throws we need to make and we weren’t shooting the ball like we have. Sometimes that happens on the second night of a road trip.
“We shot free throws well in the second half, but if we would have done that earlier, the separation wouldn’t have been as big,” he added.