Eastern Washington lets go of lead, falls to Montana in second straight Big Sky Championship

Eastern Washington lets go of lead, falls to Montana in second straight Big Sky Championship

The run by the Eagles ran out of magic.

The Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team fell short its bid to advance to the NCAA Tournament by falling to Montana 68-62 on Saturday (March 16) in the championship game of the Big Sky Conference Basketball Tournament presented by My Place Hotels at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho.

In a rematch of last year’s title game won by the Grizzlies, Montana out-shot Eastern 62.5 percent to 39.4 percent in the second half on its way to a second-straight tournament title to add to its consecutive regular season championships. The Eagles had led at halftime 31-26 after hitting seven of its first eight shots, and led for 28:38 of the game, compared to 10:18 for UM.

Four Eagles scored in double figures, led by a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds by redshirt freshman Kim Aiken Jr. , who joined Mason Peatling on the All-Tournament team. Peatling scored 13 and had seven rebounds, Jesse Hunt had 17 and seven boards, and Tyler Kidd scored 12 with six rebounds and three assists. However, EWU was out-shot 50.9 percent to 42.1 percent in the game and was out-rebounded 34-30.

Eastern was trying for its fifth-straight national postseason appearance, and to join EWU’s 2004 and 2015 teams in advancing to the Big Dance. Eastern defeated the Griz in 2015 – on their home court to boot – in the championship game, but have lost to Montana the last two seasons.

“We have a group that believes and fight for every little inch they get,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans . “They brought it every game and in the second half – they wanted to keep playing and get to the NCAA Tournament. They wanted to make Eastern proud, and I think they made them proud by keeping that fight and keeping that grit.

Eastern had its five-game winning streak ended to finish 16-18 after a 1-9 start. Eastern was trying to become just the third Big Sky team out of 53 total entrants to enter the NCAA Tournament with a non-winning record. The Eagles are now 2-6 in the title game.

“To see the hurt in the locker room is emotion, it’s family and its love,” he continued. “It’s guys getting together and believing in each other. To see them with all their red eyes is sad and heartbreaking. But they are teammates and they love each other. We’ll be back here next year and hopefully we’re on the other end of this thing. I’m just hurting for the guys.”

The high-energy Eagles sank seven of their first eight shots in the game, and took an early 17-5 lead. A 10-0 run was fueled by Aiken’s six points, including a rebound dunk.

Eastern then missed eight-straight shots and went 6:40 without a field goal, but a 7-0 Eagle run put Eastern back up 24-12 with 6:40 to play in the half on a 3-pointer by Cody Benzel . Eastern led 31-26 at halftime, with the Eagles cooling off to sink 45.8 percent of their shots in the half, compared to 40.0 percent for the Griz.

In the second half, Eastern couldn’t mount a scoring run and the Grizzlies eventually took their first lead of the game at 47-46 with 11:04 to play. The Grizzlies made 11 of it its first 13 shots in the second half, and led by as many as eight at the 6:45 mark and led the rest of the way.

In last year’s game, Montana also came from behind to defeat Eastern 82-65 in EWU’s seventh Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game in school history on March 10, 2018, at the Reno (Nevada) Events Center. The Eagles led 40-29 at halftime, but was outscored 53-25 after intermission. Montana used a collective 28-4 run in a 10-minute span to not only overcome a seven-point EWU lead, but take a 17-point lead itself.

Records . . .

* The Eagles closed the year 16-18 overall, and 12-8 in Big Sky Conference play. The Eagles were 10-4 at home this season and 4-13 on the road with a three-game winning streak, and are now 2-1 on neutral courts. Eastern won 11 of its last 16 games in league play, and was 15-9 overall since starting the season 1-9. This is the fourth-straight year Eastern has recorded 10 league wins or more, and the sixth-straight year they have had a winning record. Eastern is 65-29 in those six years for a .691 winning percentage.

* Top-seeded Montana is now 26-8 after winning the regular season title with a 16-4 record. The Griz advanced in the tournament with an overwhelming 78-49 victory over No. 4 seed Weber State, which followed a 79-73 quarterfinal victory over No. 9 Sacramento State.Third-seeded Eastern advanced with a 77-61 victory over No. 7 Southern Utah in the semifinals, which followed a 90-84 victory over No. 6 Montana State in the quarterfinals.

* Eastern is now 2-6 in the championship game at the Big Sky Conference tournament, and is 8-4 in the semifinals. Eastern won semifinal games in 2019, 2018, 2015, four-straight years from 2001-2004 and 1990. The Eagles lost in 2017, 2016, 2006 and 2000. In the championship game, Eastern was victorious in 2015 (over Montana) and 2004 (over Northern Arizona), but fell in 2018 (Montana), 2003 (Weber State), 2002 (Montana), 2001 (Cal State Northridge) and 1990 (Idaho). The Eagles are 1-6 versus Montana. Eastern made its its 17th Big Sky Conference Tournament appearance in 32 years as a member of the league, and now has a record of 17-15 in its 32 games.

Top Performers . . .

* Senior Jesse Hunt closed his Eastern career with a team-high 17 points to go along with seven rebounds. He had 34 career double-figure scoring performances in his career to go along with 18 performances with 10 or more rebounds. He had 12 double-doubles on the season and 14 in his career.

* Junior Mason Peatling scored 13 points and also had seven boards. An honorable mention All-Big Sky selection a year ago, he has 32 career games scoring in double figures, with 10 rebounding in double figures. He has three double-doubles this season and nine in his career.

* Redshirt freshman Kim Aiken Jr. finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots for his fourth double-double of the season. That gives him eight double-figure scoring performances this season and four with at least 10 rebounds. Eastern is now 6-0 when Aiken scores at least 10 for the Eagles.

* Junior guard Tyler Kidd scored 12 points, plus six rebounds and three assists. He has scored in double figures 16 times, all coming in EWU’s last 24 games.

* Sophomore Jacob Davison has not played since suffering an ankle injury versus Northern Colorado on Feb. 16. Before scoring 13 against the Bears, he had scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven games, and eight total this season (nine in his career). He’s had 15 performances in double-digits (25 in his career).

Key Stats . . .

* Finishing at 42.1 percent, EWU was 14-1 this season when it made at least 45 percent of its shots from the field (4-0 at 50 percent or better) and 2-16 when it doesn’t. Eastern sank 45.8 percent in the first half, while Montana was at 40 percent in the first half and 61 percent after intermission. The Grizzlies hit 5-of-8 3-pointers in the second half and 9-of-20 in the game, while EWU sank just 5-of-20.

* Montana had a 34-30 rebounding advantage, with a 10-4 edge in offensive rebounds. Eastern out-rebounded 14 of its last 18 opponents after having advantages in just two of its first 16 games. The Eagles were 13-3 when they out-rebound opponents and 3-15 when having less or tied.

Notables . . .

* Eastern’s senior trio of Cody Benzel , Ty Gibson and Jesse Hunt have combined for 379 games played in their careers. Benzel has played in 135 to pass Felix Von Hofe for second in school history (three from the school record) and Gibson has 130 to pass his former teammate Felix Von Hofe for third. Jesse Hunt is right behind with 117 games played to rank 11th in school history. Benzel closed his career in sole possession of fourth in school history with 203 3-pointers made in his career, and Gibson was ninth with 153. Eastern also honored a fourth player on March 2 — 2016 Central Valley High School (Spokane) graduate Joshua Thomas who will depart after three seasons in the program. He has a 3.98 grade point average as a visual communications design major at Eastern, joining the other three with some impressive academic accomplishments. Gibson and Hunt will both become four-time members of the Big Sky Conference All-Academic team, and Benzel was honored a year ago. Gibson has a 3.99 GPA as an accounting major, and Hunt was an Academic All-America nominee and has a 3.57 grade point average in business management. Benzel has a double major in marketing and finance.

* Eastern is 23-53 against the Grizzlies since becoming a member of NCAA Division I in 1983-84, including a 10-28 record in Missoula, 13-21 in Cheney and 0-4 on neutral courts. Montana leads the overall series 70-44. The Eagles triumphed the previous two times they played the Griz in Cheney, and have still won three of the last five meetings in Missoula. Until winning 75-69 on Feb. 4, 2015, the Eagles had lost their last 12 meetings in Missoula, dating back to a 71-52 Eagle win on Feb. 7, 2004. The Eagles would also beat the Grizzlies on their home floor in the 2015 Big Sky Championship game, giving the Eagles a berth in the NCAA Tournament. EWU is 1-6 versus the Griz in the Big Sky Tournament. Besides losing 82-65 in the 2018 title game and beating UM in 2015, EWU also lost 74-66 in the 2012 semifinals in Missoula; 73-71 in overtime in the 2006 semifinals in Flagstaff, Ariz.; 58-48 in the 2005 quarterfinals and 70-66 in the 2002 championship in Bozeman.

* In the 2018 Big Sky Conference Tournament Championship Game, a turnaround in the second half helped Montana defeat Eastern 82-65 in EWU’s seventh Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game in school history March 10, 2018, at the Reno (Nevada) Events Center. The Eagles led 40-29 at halftime thanks to 53.3 percent shooting that included 8-of-13 from the 3-point line – a sizzling 61.5 percent. But Eastern sank only 37.5 percent in the second half – 1-of-11 from the arc – and was outscored 53-25. Montana made 59 percent its shots in the game and 65 percent in the second half, using a collective 28-4 run in a 10-minute span to not only overcome a seven-point EWU lead, but take a 17-point lead itself.

More Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .

On Montana’s Performance: “I want to congratulate Montana – they played a great game and a great second half. They are well-coached and made plays when they needed to. They did a good job of speeding us up and forcing turnovers. We turned the ball over 15 times tonight which is uncharacteristic of our team. We just have to give them credit.”

On 2018-19 Season: “I couldn’t be more proud of our basketball team. They did a great job today and they did a great job from the beginning of last year. We were in the same exact situation last year (at the end of the season). We started off the season with a lot of injuries. We had players who stepped up to be great leaders and understand exactly what the season was about. It’s about building relationships and getting guys to believe in a common goal. When you bring in new players to a team it’s always a little rocky, but we had three great seniors. And Mason was an unbelievable leader.”