EWU men’s basketball secures No. 3 seed, Bliznyuk named MVP

Senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk was named Big Sky Conference MVP after averaging 20.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game


Senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk shoots a free throw against Northern Arizona on March 3. With this made free throw, Bliznyuk set a new single-season NCAA record with 74-straight made from the charity stripe | Richard Clark IV for The Easterner

By Michael Brock, Sports Editor

EWU men’s basketball head coach Shantay Legans has been saying it all season: The Eagles have the best player in the league.

On March 5, the majority of the Big Sky Conference coaches agreed—senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk was voted the 2017-18 BSC Most Valuable Player.

By statistics alone, Bliznyuk was a shoo-in for the award. In his final season as an Eagle, the Ukraine native put up 20.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Those standards bumped up to 22.6 points (3rd in Big Sky), 7.6 rebounds (5th) and 4.8 assists (2nd) per contest in league games, to rank as the only player in BSC to be in the top 5 in scoring, rebounding and assists (or the top 20 for that matter).

In addition, Bliznyuk set EWU’s all-time scoring record and became just the fifth player in BSC history to eclipse 2,000 career points.

When the focus shifts to team success, the selection makes even more sense.

The 2016-17 Eagles were 22–12 overall (and 13–5 in BSC), finishing second in league standings. But gone from last year’s rendition was Jacob Wiley, who averaged 24.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 66.0 percent shooting from the field en route to winning 2017 BSC MVP.

As a result, EWU was selected to finish sixth in the preseason media poll and seventh in the coaches poll. With Bliznyuk manning the attack, the Eagles did much better.

With two wins in the final week of the regular season, the Eagles (13–5 BSC) locked up the No. 3 seed and a first-round bye in the BSC Championship tournament, which tips off in Reno, Nevada on March 6. EWU will play the winner of Portland State University and Sacramento State University on March 8 in the quarterfinals.

To secure the No. 3 seed, the Eagles beat Southern Utah University on March 1 (74–51) and Northern Arizona University on March 3 (85–68).

SUU got out to advantages of 2–0 and 4–2 over EWU, but would not lead again. After opening the game 2-of-2, the Thunderbirds missed their next 10 shots. The Eagles (and Bliznyuk), meanwhile, caught fire.

EWU went on a 24–2 run to lead 26–6 as Bliznyuk poured in 14 points early on. The senior forward had 24 points by halftime, more than the entire SUU team. The Eagles led 44–22 after 20 minutes, shooting 53.3 percent for the half and 7-of-16 from three.

The second half was evenly played, but the Thunderbirds never drew closer than 16 points. EWU held a 20-plus advantage most of the way to a 74–51 victory. Bliznyuk finished with 32 points, 15 rebounds and five assists for the game. Junior guard Ty Gibson had 13 points (on four triples) and four rebounds.

“I didn’t have any doubt in my mind that we would come out and play like we did tonight,” Legans said postgame. “I thought we came out and played hard for all 40 minutes.”

The victory over NAU on March 3 was Senior Day for the Eagles, as Bliznyuk, Sir Washington and Benas Griciunas were honored pregame.

Early on, the game was back-and-forth, with the Lumberjacks holding a 9–8 advantage. That’s when the Eagles went on a 14–2 run, capped off by a three from redshirt freshman guard Jacob Davison, to lead 22–11.

EWU kept a reasonable distance the remainder of the opening frame, and led 38–23 at halftime. Davison led the Eagles with 12 points in the first half, while freshman guard Jack Perry had 9.

The second half was more of the same, as the Lumberjacks never got within single-digits. The Eagles led by as many as 23 before winning 85–68. And that would have been that, except Bliznyuk decided to make history one more time before being crowned league MVP.

With 3:46 remaining, Bliznyuk knocked down a pair of free throws, his fifth and sixth for the game. As a result of those makes, the senior forward set a new NCAA single-season record with 74 straight made three throws, passing Gary Buchanan who made 73 straight for Villanova from 2000 to 2001.

After a stoppage in play, Bliznyuk checked out to a roaring Reese Court crowd for the final time. He finished with 15 points and 10 assists.

Fellow senior Sir Washington scored 13 points for the Eagles, who knocked down a season-high 16 three-pointers. Perry had a career-high 18 points (on six triples), while Davison scored 14. Sophomore forward Mason Peatling had 11 points and 10 rebounds. Peatling earned honorable mention All-BSC honors on March 5.

Next up is the BSC Championship tournament. EWU will tip off on March 8 in the quarterfinals against the winner of PSU and Sac State at 8:05 p.m. The Eagles beat Sac State twice and split with PSU in the regular season.

EWU has qualified for three straight national postseason tournaments, including an NCAA tournament appearance in 2015. They have a decent chance to make it four straight, but time will tell whether that comes in the Big Dance.

The winner of the BSC tournament gets an automatic berth to the NCAA’s and the Eagles have as good a chance as anyone. They are entering the tournament on a six-game win streak, and have a benefit no other team possesses.

The best player in the conference.