EWU advances to first NCAA Tournament since 2004

Eastern’s close out Big Sky Conference championship game, 17-4, to beat Montana

By Brandon Cline, Staff Writer

It was looking grim. Everything the EWU men’s basketball team had worked for in the offseason and in 33 grueling games during the season was slipping through its hands in the 34th and most important game. Until it wasn’t.

Down by 11 points with 6:15 left in the Big Sky Tournament championship game, head coach Jim Hayford called a timeout to settle the team down during a 7-0 Montana run. That timeout turned out to be the difference maker in the game and in EWU’s season as a whole. What followed was a 21-6 Eagles run that came out of nowhere to give EWU a 69-65 victory, giving the team its second-ever Big Sky Tournament championship and its second NCAA Tournament berth in their Division I history.

After a Venky Jois basket following the timeout, EWU switched to a full-court press defense, putting pressure on the Grizzlies for a full 94 feet.

“We were down 11 and looked dead in the water. We called timeout, but we’ve been there before. I said, ‘Let’s do this – let’s play to win. Let’s put the pressure on them and start playing not to lose,’” said Hayford.

The move paid off three possessions later, when the Eagles forced a five-second violation, leading to a 3-pointer from Big Sky Tournament Most Valuable Player Tyler Harvey, his first and only of the game.

The basket cut Montana’s lead to 4 points and EWU took the lead 93 seconds later when Felix Von Hofe, the hero in Friday’s semifinal game against Sacramento State, nailed his only 3-pointer on five attempts in the game. The teams traded layups after Von Hofe’s basket and the Eagles led 64-63 when Harvey hit a baseline jumper and converted the and-one free throw to give EWU a 4-point lead with 43 seconds remaining that Montana could not overcome.

“It was an improbable comeback, but it just shows the character of this team,” said Hayford, Co-Coach of the Year in the Big Sky. “This is a big win because this just didn’t happen this year. This freshman class was 10-21. We needed to find a point guard and we did (speaking of JC transfer Drew Brandon), and everyone kept saying we had the best year in 10 years. But every man in that locker room said, ‘We’re going to the NCAA tournament next year.’ We put it on each other to get to that level, and here we are at 26-8.”

EWU controlled much of the first half, leading 17-11 with 7:40 left in the half. Montana ended the half on a 19-12 run though to go up 30-29 at halftime.

The Eagles shot a paltry 8-28 (28.6 percent) from the field in the first half, which included going 1-8 (12.5 percent) from beyond the arc. Freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk came off the bench and paced the Eagles with 7 points in the first half. Bliznyuk finished the game with 13 points, along with five rebounds, two steals and a block.

Neither team had a lead greater than 4 points in the second half until the 10:17 mark, when Montana’s Mike Weisner made a pair of free throws to put the Grizzlies up by 6 points. Weisner scored 13 straight points for Montana during that stretch and almost single-handedly put the game away for the host team.

But the Eagles would stick around in large part because of what they did inside the 3-point line, rather than out. EWU shot just 3-10 (30 percent) from long range in the second half, but were 13-16 (81.3 percent) from two-point range.

Senior Drew Brandon was undeterred in the second half, shooting 5-6 from the field for 13 points, finishing with 16 in the game. Harvey poured in 12 of his 18 points in the second half, with eight of those points in the last 3:43 of the game.

“It’s just a dream come true. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point,” said Harvey, the nation’s leading scorer. “We’ve been fighting all year,” said Brandon, echoing Harvey’s sentiments in the postgame press conference.

Jois was named to the All-Big Sky tournament team and finished the game with 8 points on 3-5 shooting, including five rebounds. In the huddle with the team down 54-61 during a timeout, Jois was noticeably vocal talking to his teammates. “Venky came in and fired us up, and woke us up to the moment we were in,” said Harvey.

“The whole game was super emotional because we knew what we were playing for,” said Jois. “But that last four-minute stretch, we looked each other in the eyes … all the work we’ve put in to get to those last four minutes, if that’s not enough to make you give it everything you have … that’s what showed through in the last four minutes.”

EWU got to the championship game by winning two high scoring affairs, beating Idaho in the quarterfinals, 91-83, and Sacramento State by the same score in the semifinals. Harvey erupted for 42 points against Idaho, shooting 8-12 from 3-point range to tie the single-game scoring record in Big Sky Tournament history.

In the semifinal matchup against Sacramento State, the Eagles shot 15-25 (60 percent) from beyond the arc, seeing their lead climb to as high as 26 points before Sacramento State pulled the game to within 8 points. Von Hofe was 6-7 from deep and scored a career high 23 points in the game. The Eagles had 49 points in the first half, none of which came from Harvey, a statistic that shows EWU’s offense does not rely on just one player.

Today, the Eagles will be hosting a selection show at Reese Court with the doors opening at 2 p.m.

The EWU pep band “Code Red” will be performing and players and coaches will address the crowd with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Selection Show airing on CBS at 3 p.m., where the Eagles will find out who they play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.