Nationally-speaking, the Montana Grizzlies lived up to their lofty ranking.
The Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team was out-shot 9-4 at the 3-point line and fell at Montana 81-66 Thursday (Jan. 3) in a Big Sky Conference men’s game at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Mont.
The Grizzlies made 9-of-21 from the 3-point stripe (43 percent) after entering the game ranked 11th in NCAA Division I in 3-point percentage (40.7 percent) and 55th with an average of 7.7 treys per game. Eastern led D-I with an average of 9.8 per game, but made only 4-of-16 versus the Grizzlies.
A 10-2 run – including a pair of 3-pointers -- helped the Grizzlies pull away from a 37-all tie in the second half. The Eagles fell to 1-2 in the conference and 3-10 overall with the loss, while the Grizzlies improved to 3-0 in the Big Sky and 7-4 overall with their third-straight win.
“For the first 25 minutes of the game we looked like a real solid, cohesive unit playing with a purpose,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. “That is something we can really, really build on. Then we had a spurt where we kept fouling and we went cold. That was the difference right there.”
Montana finished the game making 46 percent of its shots from the field compared to 44 percent for the Eagles. A total of five Grizzlies made 3-pointers, as UM won its 20th-straight Big Sky Conference home game.
True freshman Venky Jois led the Eagles with 16 points and also had seven rebounds, a pair of assists and a blocked shot. Fellow true freshman Thomas Reuter had 14 points, just two from his season high of 16 points on Nov. 30 versus Cal State Fullerton. He made 5-of-6 shots from the field and had eight rebounds.
Senior Collin Chiverton had 14 points in his first action since Nov. 23. Last year’s Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year, Chiverton hadn’t played in Eastern’s last six games following the death of a close friend in San Francisco. Previously, his mother passed away just as the season began.
Eastern played its first game without former starting point guard Justin Crosgile, who is no longer on the team. Crosgile, who is from Patterson, N.J., and is a transfer from St. Joseph’s (Pa.), started EWU’s first 12 games and averaged 14.7 points, 5.5 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game.
Senior Kevin Winford started at point guard for the Eagles against the Grizzlies and was scoreless and had two assists. True freshman Daniel Hill, who recently became eligible, played 15 minutes and scored four points with an assist at the point.
“Everybody is learning how to play with each other,” said Hayford. “Venky and Thomas both had great nights – Thomas was really, really solid. Daniel made a few mistakes that come with only playing four games. We have to shoot a little better, especially if teams are going to zone us.”
“We challenged them to use the last six or seven minutes to get better as a team, and I thought we did that,” Hayford added. “There are some positives to build from. Montana is a really good team. We are going to come into this building and win games in the future.”
Eastern fell behind early by scores of 7-0 and 12-5 as EWU missed its first five shots of the game and Montana made 4-of-5. With Reuter scoring 10 first-half points, Eastern trailed just 21-19 before a 9-2 Montana run gave the Grizzlies a seven-point advantage again.
The Grizzlies led by as many as eight, and was up 36-29 at halftime. But the Eagles opened the second half with an 8-1 run to provide the first tie of the game at 37-all.
Montana responded with a 7-0 run to take the lead for good, and a 3-pointer by Jordan Gregory gave UM a 47-39 lead. The Grizzlies led by as many as 19 after that.
Gregory had four of Montana’s 3-pointers and finished with 17 points – double his average of 8.5 points per game entering the game. Spencer Coleman scored 15 after averaging just 5.3.
“We lost Gregory at times -- you have to give them credit, they have some great players inside and outside,” Hayford said. “He had a big first half, and then in the second half we just fouled too much. They got the ball inside and got some second shots.”
Mathias Ward had 10 of his 12 points in the second half as Montana out-rebounded EWU 21-11 and made 25-of-29 free throws after intermission. Eastern out-rebounded Montana 17-10 in the first half, but was out-boarded 31-28 for the game.
“We out-rebounded them in the first half, then they killed us on the boards on the second half,” explained Hayford. “Our first-shot defense on the night was really, really good. We didn’t rebound as well in the second half and we fouled them on some high-percentage looks.”
The Eagles continue their road trip Saturday (Jan. 5) in Bozeman to face Montana State at 6:05 p.m. Pacific time. The Bobcats beat Portland State 62-59 at home on Thursday, improving MSU to 1-2 in the league and 4-7 overall. Following this week’s games, Eastern returns to Reese Court to host Northern Arizona on Jan. 10 and Sacramento State on Jan. 12 in a pair of games that start at 6:05 p.m. Pacific time.
Eastern hadn’t played since beating Idaho State 57-54 on Dec. 22, and the extended break allowed the youthful Eagles to get more practice time. The Idaho State win snapped EWU’s four-game losing streak, including a league-opening 74-53 loss to Weber State. The Wildcats were picked to finish second in the league standings behind Montana, which defeated EWU in the semifinals (74-66) and Weber State in the championship game (85-66) of the 2012 league tournament.
A year ago, the Eagles were swept in three games by Montana, but won both meetings against the Bobcats.