The rubber match of anything can be so much fun, especially when considering the intrigue of the numbers.
But the Eagle defense was the big winner this time, holding Portland State without a field goal for a 9:51 stretch in the first half as the third-seeded Eagles beat the No. 6 Vikings 78-72 in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament at the Reno (Nevada) Events Center.
In a battle of one team outstanding at taking the ball and another outstanding at taken care of it, Eastern used a 12-0 run to take a 20-point lead in the first half, helped by a 6:31 scoreless stretch by the Vikings. They missed eight-straight shots and had seven turnovers during their nearly 10 minutes without a field goal, and EWU led by 16 at halftime.
Eastern led by as many as 21 in the second half and 19 with inside of seven minutes left before PSU rallied with a 16-2 run to cut the lead to five with 1:12 to play. But on his way to 35 points, Big Sky MVP Bodgan Bliznyuk had a three-point play with 46 seconds to left and three more free throws in the last 37 seconds to clinch the win.
"We were solid and we were smart, and our team did a good job," said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. "I was excited about the way they played. Our guys made some plays at the end that separated it a little bit. But a lot of credit goes to Portland State – they did a great job."
Now with a seven-game winning streak, 19-13 Eastern advances to play in the semifinals Friday at 8:05 p.m. versus No. 10 seed Southern Utah which upset second-seeded Idaho 92-78 in the quarterfinals.
Portland State entered the game ranked in the top three in NCAA Division I in turnover margin, turnovers forced, steals and offensive rebounds, leading to the third-best scoring average at 86.3 per game. Eastern, meanwhile, entered ranked 41st in fewest turnovers allowed and 23rd in free throw percentage.
It was EWU's defense that stole the show, forcing 10 turnovers and committing just seven itself in the first half. Eastern also out-shot the Vikings 52 percent to 36 percent in the first half, and 52 percent to 38 percent in the game.
Bliznyuk hit his first four shots – all 3-pointers – and had 17 of his 35 points in the first half. He finished the game 11-of-14 from the field with 4-of-5 3-pointers, and made 9-of-11 free throws. His NCAA single season record for consecutive free throws ended at 77, but he moved into second on the Big Sky's all-time scoring list with 2,095 and is just seven from the record of 2,102.
Eastern and PSU entered the game with a collective season total of 38 victories, and had split its two regular season meetings. Eastern beat Portland State at home 81-74 on Jan. 4, then surrendered its most points this season in a 94-81 loss in Portland to the Vikings on Feb. 3. The Vikings had won five of their last six games.
The winner of the EWU-SUU game advances to Saturday's championship game at 5 p.m., with the winner receiving a berth into the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles have advanced to the Big Dance in 2004 and 2015, were in the NIT in 2003 and have played in the last two College Basketball Invitational (CBI) tournaments.
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