EWU men’s basketball begins campaign with new look

Eagles open season 2-1 with victories over Walla Walla and Stanford, and losing to Washington


Senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk shoots a three-pointer against Walla Walla University on Nov. 10. Bliznyuk was named a Big Sky Conference Player of the Year Candidate | Bailey Monteith for The Easterner

By Michael Brock, Sports Editor

The 2017 EWU men’s basketball team will have a new feel to it, for a couple of reasons.

First, the Eagles have a new head coach at the helm. Shantay Legans, who had been an assistant at EWU for eight seasons, took the position last spring when six-year head coach Jim Hayford left for the same job at Seattle University.

The Eagles also lost two seniors from last season’s squad—Felix Von Hofe and Jacob Wiley. Von Hofe, a four-year player at EWU, averaged 11.2 points and 3.1 rebounds per game last year. Wiley—who is now a two-way player for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets—put up 20.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists in his single season with the Eagles.

EWU is coming off a third-straight appearance in a national postseason tournament, and were 22-12 overall last year. This season’s rendition, which placed sixth in the preseason media poll and seventh in the coaches, will be led by senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk. He averaged 20.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game a season ago and was named a Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate prior to this season.

“He is an experienced, versatile player who will continue to do a little bit of everything for us,” said Legans. “Bogdan is ready to have his best year as an Eagle yet.”

By the end of the season, Bliznyuk will in all likelihood finish as EWU’s all-time leading scorer, and in the top 10 of many other major categories.

The Eagles return eight players from last year, including three starters—Bliznyuk, sophomore forward Mason Peatling and sophomore guard Luka Vulikic. The others are senior guard Sir Washingon, junior guard Cody Benzel, sophomore guard Grant Gibb, junior guard Ty Gibson and junior  forward Jesse Hunt, with guard Jacob Davison and guard Joshua Thomas returning as redshirts.

One of the eight newcomers include Lithuanian seven-foot post player Benas Griciunas, a graduate transfer who has 59 games of NCAA Division I experience under his belt. The Eagles also have five freshman on the squad—forward Richard Polanco, forward Tanner Groves, forward Brendan Howard, guard/forward Kim Aiken Jr. and guard Jack Perry, while other newcomers include junior guard Tyler Kidd and sophomore guard Steven Beo.

Legans said that this year’s team will be better equipped to excel on defense, after previous teams under Hayford were offensive focused. The 2016 Eagles scored 79.5 points per game in Big Sky, but also allowed opponents to score at 76.2 points per contest.

“We have a great base of offense that Coach Hayford established here before he left,” said Legans. “We’re going to keep building on that, with a couple of tweaks here and there. But defensively is where we are really going to make our name.”

EWU won 76-70 in an exhibition matchup against Portland on Oct. 29. The proceeds of the game went to Hurricane Maria disaster relief, and Legans got to get a first glance at his team.

In his first Eagles action, Griciunas led the team with 18 points and nine rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting. Washington had 16 points and five boards, while Bliznyuk added 10 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

Senior guard Sir Washington drives to the paint against Walla Walla University on Nov. 10. Washington is one of three seniors on this year’s team | Bailey Monteith for The Easterner

The Eagles opened up its regular season at home against Walla Walla University on Nov. 10, taking down the Wolves 82-61. Walla Walla kept it close at the beginning, but the Eagles finished the first half on a 14-6 run, and never looked back. Bliznyuk had 18 points to lead four Eagles in double figures.

They then traveled to Seattle, where they fell to the University of Washington 79-69. EWU in shooting distance for the majority of the game, however four points was the closest they got in the second half. Bliznyuk again paced the Eagles with 20 points and eight rebounds.

On Tuesday, Nov. 14, EWU took down Stanford University 67-61 in Palo Alto, California. This was the program’s first win against a Pac-12 opponent since beating the University of Washington 62-58 on Dec. 14, 2002. Prior to the matchup, the Eagles were 2-40 all-time against Pac-12 schools entering the game.

EWU trailed 9-2 in the game’s first moments, but led for the final 29 minutes. Bliznyuk guided the team with 23 points and five assists, while Gibson had 11 points and Hunt had ten points. The difference in the game though may have been three-point shooting, as the Eagles made 11-of-25 threes, while Stanford tallied just 2-of-16.

“It does a lot for our program–until we play UNLV in our next game,” said Legans following the win. “We are going to enjoy it and have a good time. It was a huge win for our program and a great win for our school—it gives us a little notoriety. It’s a great time to be an Eagle. We have everything rolling at Eastern. We’re really excited about this win and the whole program.”

From here, EWU will continue its strenuous road schedule, which includes 10-straight road games and 36-straight days without a home contest.

“[We’re] very excited,” said Bliznyuk. “[It’s my] last year, and I want to make it the best one yet. I made the NCAA Tournament my freshman year, I want to make it my last year too …We think we have a really good team and just can’t wait to get going.”