The Big Sky Conference road sweep is an elusive beast.
With Bogdan Bliznyuk coming up just short in his quest for the school's career scoring record, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team came up just short of a road sweep when the Eagles lost 66-62 to Southern Utah Saturday (Jan. 20) in Cedar City, Utah.
Bliznyuk finished with a team-leading 18 after entering the game needing 19 to tie and 20 to break EWU's all-time scoring record. He played just 27 minutes because of foul trouble, but fellow senior Sir Washington stepped up to finish with a season-high 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the field. Sophomore Mason Peatling had his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
"Sir played great, he is starting to step up as a senior," said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. "He is playing with a lot of composure and freedom and has confidence. That is what we need. He played terrific today and I am proud of him. I am really proud of how he came out today and kept us in this ball game."
Neither team scored in the final 2:22 of regulation as the game was knotted at 54 heading into overtime. The Thunderbirds hit their first two shots of overtime and was 4-of-6 in the extra period, while EWU was 3-of-7 in OT.
Coupled with last Thursday's 81-76 win at Northern Arizona, the Eagles have now split on the road six-straight times, dating back to the 2015-16 season when the Eagles swept the same Southern Utah and Northern Arizona road trip. One trip earlier that season, Eastern was swept by the Montana schools.
Bliznyuk now has 1,802 career points, only one away from the all-time record of 1,803 set by his former teammate Venky Jois from 2013-16. Bliznyuk should get it early in EWU's next game at home versus North Dakota on Thursday (Jan. 25) at 6:05 p.m. Eastern also hosts Northern Colorado next week on Saturday (Jan. 27).
The Eagles will end the regular season against SUU and NAU in Cheney, facing the Thunderbirds on March 1 and the Lumberjacks three days later.
Records . . .
* The Eagles are now 9-11 on the season and 4-3 in the Big Sky, and have still won six of their last nine games.
* Southern Utah lost 80-76 at home to Idaho on Thursday, and are now 8-10 overall (7-3 at home) and 2-5 in the league. The Thunderbirds earlier this season knocked off Long Beach State, Central Michigan and San Jose State to start the season 6-4. Southern Utah's top four scorers are all transfers, including three from NCAA Division I programs.
What it Means . . .
* The Eagles fell out of a second-place tie in the Big Sky standings and are now 4-3. Montana enters action tonight 6-0, and is followed by 4-2 Montana State, Weber State and Idaho. The Grizzlies have four road conference wins already and Idaho has three, EWU and Portland State have two and MSU, Weber State and Idaho State all have one all-important road breakthrough.
What's Next . . .
* The Eagles return home to Reese Court to play North Dakota at 6:05 p.m. on Thursday (Jan. 25) before Northern Colorado visits Saturday (Jan. 27) for a 2:05 p.m. game. North Dakota and Northern Colorado square off later tonight (Jan. 20) in Greeley, Colo., before heading to the Pacific Northwest. The Fighting Hawks are now 2-4 in the Big Sky and 7-11 overall, while the Bears are 3-3 in the league and 12-7 on the season. Northern Colorado hosts Idaho before facing the Eagles.
* 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 four games without Jesse Hunt, who had 16 points and eight rebounds in both of those early games.
Keys to Game . . .
* With Bogdan Bliznyuk mired in foul trouble, other Eagles stepped up to help EWU take the lead in the second half. Two fouls in the first half limited Bliznyuk to 12 minutes, then two more fouls sent him to the bench again six minutes into the second half. At that point, the Eagle senior had 10 points in 18 minutes, with EWU having an eight-point advantage when he was on the floor. The Eagles had trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half and fell behind 35-30 at halftime.
Turning Point . . .
* The Thunderbirds hit their first two shots of overtime to take a five-point advantage, and EWU could never overcome the lead. Bogdan Bliznyuk made a basket with 3:22 to play to cut the lead to three, but fouled out just 39 seconds later. Southern Utah iced the win with a pair of free throws with eight seconds left.
* Twin 7-0 runs in the second half helped the Eagles turn a five-point deficit into a seven-point advantage in the second half. But SUU rallied to knot the game at 48, and that's when Bliznyuk re-entered the game with four fouls. He single-handedly had a 6-0 EWU run, giving the Eagles a 54-48 advantage with 5:01 to play. But the Eagles went the final 5:01 without scoring. Meanwhile, SUU made only one of its last nine shots in regulation and went the final 2:22 without scoring after knotting the game at 54.
Top Performers . . .
* Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk made 8-of-18 shots from the field and both of his free throws to finish with 18 points. He has made 36 consecutive free throws dating back to EWU's game at North Dakota on Dec. 31.
* Senior Sir Washington had his third double-figure scoring performance in league play and in the season with a season-high 15 points. He made 5-of-9 shots from the field and 4-of-5 free throws, as well as five rebounds.
* Sophomore Mason Peatling had his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, sinking 4-of-8 shots from the field.
* True freshman Jack Perry chipped in seven points on 3-of-5 shooting from the field.
Key Stats . . .
* The Eagles struggled at the 3-point line at 19 percent (4-of-21), but was efficient inside the arc and finished at 40.0 percent overall. Eastern's defense held SUU to 35.6 percent shooting, but the Thunderbirds were able to make 11-of-28 3-point shots for 39.3 percent.
Other Team Highlights . . .
* Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk now has 1,802 career points in 123 career games, second on the school's scoring list and now just one behind the record of 1,803 set by Venky Jois (2013-16). Bliznyuk currently ranks 15th in the 55-year history of the Big Sky, moving past North Dakota's Quinton Hooker with 1,787 in four seasons from 2014-17. Jois is No. 14 on the Big Sky list. Against Northern Arizona, Bliznyuk moved past the EWU record for field goal attempts. In addition, Bliznyuk needs to play in five more games to equal the record of 128 set by his former teammate Felix Von Hofe from 2014-17.
Notables . . .
* The Eagles had won the last four meetings in Cedar City dating back to a 69-55 loss there in the first-ever league match-up between the two schools in 2013. Eastern has now won four of the last seven in Flagstaff, but ended the regular season a year ago with a 76-61 loss just two days after beating the Thunderbirds 91-75. That loss to the Lumberjacks cost EWU a share of their fourth regular season Big Sky title in school history.
Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On defense: "We were hoping to get a full forty-minute game with that defense. In the first half we let them stay in the game. We were close at the end of the game and they go sneak one out. I am looking forward to them coming back home to our place."
On playing zone defense: “The zone was great. We didn't anticipate it, but we got in the game and went into zone to see what would happen and the guys responded in a good way. They were communicating and rebounding and they did a good job covering everybody in the zone. That is a plus we will take away from this game."
On why free throws weren't going in: "We just missed shots and the guys have to shoot the ball with confidence. We shot the ball with confidence on Thursday, but then we came here and didn't do the same thing. We just have to make sure we play consistent. We have to be ready and keep rolling forward and can't get stuck on what we did last game. We have to get the next game going and as we play these games, we have to stay consistent. In the end, if you aren't consistent, anybody in this league can beat you because this is a good ball club and the coach does a good job with his team. We have to come in to play and make sure we are doing everything the right way."
The Big Sky Conference road sweep is an elusive beast.