It was Bogdan Bliznyuk's night to set the school's career scoring record, but it was his teammates who made sure he had a victory to go with his near triple-double of 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
The senior broke the career scoring record for the Eastern Washington University men's basketball program, and the Eagles used big runs in each half to beat North Dakota 95-71 in a Big Sky Conference game Thursday (Jan. 25) at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
Bliznyuk needed just two points to break EWU's all-time scoring record, and achieved it with a 3-pointer barely a minute into the game to give EWU a 7-2 lead. Eastern head coach Shantay Legans called a timeout so his accomplishment could be acknowledged, then the Eagles used the energy to open a 30-8 lead while making 12 of their first 15 shots.
"I was going to wait until the media timeout, but it just felt good," said Legans of using a timeout so early in the game. "He shot his first shot and it went in and it was a special moment for him and his family. I couldn't be happier and it couldn't happen to a better kid."
North Dakota pulled within eight early in the second half, but EWU used a 14-0 run to pull away. Bliznyuk didn't score in the run, as four Eagles scored in double figures and nine different players scored. Eastern has won seven of its last 10 games, but was coming off a 66-62 road loss at Southern Utah.
"It was a good game," said Legans, whose team scored a season-high 95 points in the win. "For us to come out and play that way was really exciting for us. The team responded to the loss we just had on the road, and came out and played great. It was fun."
A native of Lutsk, Ukraine, who graduated in 2014 from Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way, Wash., Bliznyuk nearly had his second career double-double as he finished with 28 points, eight rebounds and seven assists against the defending Big Sky regular season and tournament champion. Besides taking over the EWU scoring lead, he moved up four spots into 11th on the Big Sky all-time list.
"I'm glad we have Bogdan – he played great tonight," said Legans. "The team came out and did a great job. Before the game he got a chance to talk to the guys and got them really fired up."
Bliznyuk now has 1,830 points in 124 games, and is just four games played from that career record as well. Ron Cox had 1,741 points from 1974-77 and held the record for 39 years – about 14,300 days – until broken by Jois on March 3, 2016 in an Eagle loss. Thus, Jois owned the record for just 693 days.
Bliznyuk has at least 11 more games to add to that record total, starting Saturday (Jan. 27) at 2:05 p.m. when Eastern continues its Big Sky Conference schedule by hosting Northern Colorado. The Bears beat the Eagles 88-75 the last time the teams met on Dec. 29 in Greeley, Colo.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 10-11 on the season and 5-3 in the Big Sky, and have won seven of their last 10 games.
* The Fighting Hawks are now 2-6 in the Big Sky and 7-13 overall, but entered Thursday having won three of their last four games. North Dakota is just 1-9 on opponent home courts this season, with the lone victory coming last Tuesday (Jan. 16) when it knocked off North Dakota State 86-77. North Dakota lost to nationally-ranked Gonzaga 89-89 in overtime on Dec. 16 as part of an eight-game losing streak that started Dec. 5 and didn't end until Jan. 11.
What it Means . . .
* The victory, coupled with Northern Colorado's 80-63 win at Idaho, helped Eastern move up one spot into third in the Big Sky standings. Montana leads the way at 8-0 after beating Southern Utah 71-47 on Thursday, with idle Weber State currently second at 5-2. The Eagles, Vandals and Bears are all 5-3, with Montana State falling at home to Northern Colorado 77-75 on Thursday to fall to 4-4 in the league. Idaho State was also idle and is just ahead of the Bobcats at 4-3.
What's Next . . .
* Eastern hosts Northern Colorado on Saturday (Jan. 27) at 2:05 p.m. at Reese Court. After beating Idaho, the Bears are 14-7 on the season and 5-3 in the Big Sky, and are 3-5 on opponent home courts this season. North Dakota and Northern Colorado battled last Saturday (Jan. 20) in overtime, with the Bears prevailing 94-91. They won it with a half-court buzzer-beater by Andre Spight, who finished with 34 points. Spight entered Thursday's action averaging a Big Sky-leading 24.6 points per game during league play thus far, and was third overall with a 20.3 average.
* Earlier this season, Eastern opened conference play with a road split, falling at Northern Colorado 88-75 before rebounding for a 77-64 victory over UND on New Year's Eve. Bliznyuk scored 12 unanswered points in the second half in the win over the Fighting Hawks, and finished with 29 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the field and 4-of-5 from the free throw line. He scored 23 against the Bears, but Eastern has played the last five games without Jesse Hunt, who had 16 points and eight rebounds in both of those early games.
Keys to Game . . .
* With Bogdan Bliznyuk scoring 10 early points and getting plenty of supporting help, the Eagles jumped out to a quick 30-8 lead. Eastern made 12 of its first 15 shots, with six different Eagles scoring in the early hot stretch. The Eagles made 6-of-8 3-pointers in that stretch, including two each by Bliznyuk and Cody Benzel.
Turning Point . . .
* Eastern equaled its top scoring half of the season in leading 50-36 at intermission, but UND started the second half with an 11-5 run to pull within eight. However, Eastern followed with a game-deciding 14-0 run, without any points from Bliznyuk. Four other players scored, including a pair of 3-pointers by Cody Benzel, as EWU regained command at 69-47 after holding the Fighting Hawks scoreless for nearly four minutes.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk made 12-of-15 shots from the field, including 3-of-5 3-point field goals to finish with 28 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, a block and a steal. He now has 10 performances this season of at least 20 points, and 36 in his 124-game career. He made his only free throw, and has made 37 consecutive free throws dating back to EWU's game at North Dakota on Dec. 31.
* Junior Cody Benzel made 5-of-9 3-pointers after entering the game ranked third in the league at 47.9 percent. He finished with 15 points, his third performance in the last five games with at least 15.
* Senior Sir Washington had his fourth double-figure scoring performance in league play and in the season with 11 points. He made a pair of 3-pointers and also had five rebounds and three assists.
* Sophomore Mason Peatling had his second-straight double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. He had his sixth double figure scoring performance of the season as he made 5-of-12 shots from the field and had two blocked shots.
* True freshman Jack Perry chipped in nine points and six assists, junior Ty Gibson scored nine and Jacob Davison had seven tallies and five rebounds.
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern rebounded from a 19 percent shooting performance from the 3-point stripe in the loss at Southern Utah to make 15-of-36 for 42 percent against UND. The Eagles made 52.8 percent overall, compared to 45.1 percent for the Fighting Hawks. Eastern out-rebounded North Dakota 37-26 and had just six turnovers.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk now has 1,830 career points in 124 career games, breaking the previous record of 1,803 set by Venky Jois (2013-16). In addition, Bliznyuk moved up four spots to 11th in the 55-year history of the Big Sky, with Jois previously ranking No. 14 on the Big Sky list. Bliznyuk also passed the 1,810 points by Jim Potter from Idaho State from 1992-95, the 1,819 by Donn Holston from Idaho State from 1984-87 and the 1,827 by Michael Ray Richardson from Montana from 1984-87. Bliznyuk is now just 11 points from moving into the top 10 (1,841 by Tom Domako from Montana State from 1985-88). In addition, Bliznyuk needs to play in four more games to equal the record of 128 set by his former teammate Felix Von Hofe from 2014-17. Von Hofe, now living back in Melbourne, Australia, was at Thursday's game.
Notables . . .
* Former Eagle Jacob Wiley was also at Thursday's game and will also attend the UNC game as well. He returned to be with his former teammates while rehabilitating a foot injury after stints with the Brooklyn Nets of the NBA and the Long Island Nets of the NBA's G-League. Wiley originally signed a two-way contract with the Nets, and played five games with Brooklyn and then 16 (six as a starter) with Long Island. He averaged 6.6 minutes per game in his five games with Brooklyn, scoring four points and grabbing 11 rebounds. He scored all four of the points and eight of the rebounds in 21 minutes of action against Denver on Nov. 7, 2017. He made his regular season NBA debut versus Denver on Oct. 29, 2017. He then averaged 7.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists for Long Island, including a season-high 20 in his first game on Nov. 16, 2017. Wiley scored in double figures five times, and had a season-high seven rebounds on Jan. 2, 2018. He played with the Nets during the 2017 NBA Summer League, averaging 15.6 minutes, 2.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 0.5 blocked shots in the team's four games in Las Vegas. Prior to that, he played in the Portsmouth Invitational and averaged 27.2 minutes, 17.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in three games. Playing in his first and only season as an Eagle in 2016-17, Wiley made Big Sky Conference history by becoming just the second player in league history to score at least 639 points and have at least 303 rebounds in a single season in the league's 54-year existence. The honorable mention All-American, Big Sky MVP and first team NABC All-District 6 selection finished with totals of 694 and 309, respectively, and no other player in league history has coupled that with at least 58 blocks (Wiley finished with 94 to come one shy of the league record) or a shooting percentage of at least .621 (Wiley finished at .643). Wiley finished the season ranked sixth in NCAA Division I in field goal percentage, eighth in blocked shots (2.76 per game), 29th in scoring (20.4), 48th in rebounds (9.1) and 112th in free throw percentage (.828). He signed a contract with the New Jersey Nets of the NBA.
* Eastern is now 5-7 all-time against North Dakota and earlier this season picked up its first win in Grand Forks in six tries. Since UND joined the Big Sky Conference in the 2012-13 season, Eastern's is 4-6 against the Fighting Hawks (3-2 home, 1-4 on the road). The first meeting with North Dakota came on Dec. 11, 1982, when EWU lost 75-71 in Grand Forks. A year earlier, the Eagles beat North Dakota 81-72 in Cheney in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The last time the two teams played in Cheney came on Feb. 11, 2016, when EWU won 95-85.
* Both coaching staffs wore sneakers as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer "Suits and Sneakers Week" which runs from Jan. 22-28. Coaches vs. Cancer Suits and Sneakers Week is a nationwide event when basketball coaches across the country unite for a common cause – saving lives from cancer! Coaches and their staff across the nation wear sneakers with their suits during games to raise awareness and help save lives from cancer by raising funds and encouraging people to educate themselves about cancer prevention, screening, and early detection.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Bliznyuk: "I think he's the best player in the league, so he means a lot to us. Tonight he came out and had a big game scoring, rebounding and passing, and he played great defense on their best player. He comes out and works hard every day, is the last guy in the gym and always encourages his teammates. I haven't ever heard him say anything negative toward another player – he's always uplifting. We have freshmen and sophomores who have seen how he's done it. He's had some great mentors along the way and he's taken things from everybody, and now he's given back to all his teammates."
On Bliznyuk Being a Coach on the Floor: "It makes it easy, especially for my first year. I told him, 'Thank you for getting us this job, because if you weren't so good for four years I wouldn't have it.' There is a lot of trust here in him – he has the rights to call plays. He's a captain and a leader, and for me it means a lot to have so much trust in him. He helps everything – defensively, offensively and options for us to run on offense. He's huge for us – he's like another coach on the floor."