CHENEY - Despite an 11-2 start, the shorthanded Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team couldn’t keep up with league-leading and defending Big Sky Conference champion Montana and fell to the Grizzlies 65-46 Saturday (Feb. 2) in a Big Sky Conference game at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
A 19-0 first-half run by the Grizzlies was the major blow, as EWU played without injured starters Venky Jois (ankle) and Jeffrey Forbes (hand). The Grizzlies held EWU to a season-low point total, including only 18 points in the first half. Because of the injuries, Eastern was forced to use its 10th different starting lineup of the season.
“When I look back to this week, I have to remember we played four games in eight days,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. “I was worried about how much we had left, and to be shorthanded, I knew that was going to be hard. I really liked the character of our players. I thought we could fight through and do it. We didn’t have enough, and they were a better team.”
True freshman Thomas Reuter was the only Eagle in double figures with 11 points. Sophomore Martin Seiferth had nine points, five rebounds and three blocked shots, and sophomore Parker Kelly and senior Kevin Winford each added eight points. Winford finished with five assists and a pair of steals.
After winning the first two games of a three-game homestand, Eastern is now 6-16 overall and 4-8 in the league. Montana is 12-0 in the Big Sky and 16-4 overall, as four Grizzlies scored in double figures, including senior guard Will Cherry with 13 points, six rebounds and seven assists.
Montana, one of the top shooting teams in NCAA Division I, finished at 46.2 percent – the highest against the Eagles in the last 11 games since Weber State made 48 percent on Dec. 20. The Grizzlies entered the game ranked fifth nationally in free throws (76.9 percent), ninth in 3-point field goals (40.1 percent) and 27th in field goals overall (47.1 percent).
The Eagles made only 38 percent, including just 4-of-16 3-pointers (25 percent). The Eagles were also guilty of 16 turnovers and were out-rebounded 32-28.
“What today clearly showed was that Montana is the class of the league, and I give them credit,” said Hayford. “For us to have won this game, we would have needed each guy to play at the top of his game, because that is what it takes when you play a premier team.”
Jois, who Hayford hopes to have back in action Thursday (Feb. 7) when the Eagles play at Sacramento State, sprained his ankle with 3:15 left in EWU’s 72-68 victory over Montana State two days earlier. The true freshman has established himself as a bonafide contender for All-Big Sky Conference honors, as well as the league’s Freshman of the Year and Newcomer of the Year accolades.
“We expect Venky to play on Thursday,” said Hayford. “I had to make a tough decision. Do I make him play today and risk further injury, or do I say he needs 48-72 hours? I gave him until Monday for next week. That was a tough decision.”
Jois has had nine double-doubles this season to lead the Big Sky and rank 15th in NCAA Division I (through games of Jan. 31). He also leads the league and ranks 21st nationally in rebounding (9.7), and is 32nd in the nation and tops in the Big Sky in blocked shots (2.4 per game). His 50 blocked shots this season already ranks second in school history, just one behind the school record of 51 set by Paul Butorac in 2006. He is also 12th in the league in scoring (13.1) and 11th in field goal percentage (.493).
Outside of a few seconds played in a trio of games – including the Montana game -- Forbes has missed the last four games with a hand injury that required stitches. The senior has started 98 career games, and with 112 games played, is nearing the EWU career record of 119 games played.
The Grizzlies have now won 12-straight games, and have not lost since falling 68-67 on Dec. 15 at home in two overtimes to South Dakota State. Entering the game, their 11-game streak was the third-longest in NCAA Division I (Kansas 18, Akron 12, Memphis 11).
Currently ranked 16th in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 Poll, Montana has now won 23 consecutive Big Sky Conference games dating back to an 80-64 loss at Weber State on Jan. 14, 2012. Earlier this season, EWU lost to UM in Missoula 81-66.
“We didn’t have all the answers, and Montana will show you where your weaknesses are,” said Hayford. “I see a lot of positives in our team, and it is going to make this game in future years a real exciting game in Reese Court.”
The Eagles jumped out to a quick 11-2 lead in the first four minutes as four different Eagles scored. But then Montana picked up its defensive pressure and held the Eagles to just seven points the rest of the half.
The dagger was a 19-0 Montana run in which EWU went scoreless for 9:07. Eastern held Montana to 42 percent shooting, but the Eagles had 11 turnovers and made only 39 percent themselves.
Eastern went on an 8-2 run early in the second, as Seiferth contributed five points in the run. Montana went nearly three minutes without scoring, with a three-point play by Kelly pulling Eastern within eight at 34-26 with 18:01 to play.
But Montana found its shooting eye, and a 6-0 run opened a 41-26 advantage with 15:22 remaining. Eastern came no closer than 11 the rest of the way and Montana led by as many as 20 in the final seconds.
“We are a team of runs,” added Hayford. “You saw us at our best, and then you saw us at our worst. Sometimes you get so amped up you spend a lot of fuel, and then a lull comes after that. That’s what happened.”