Note: Eastern will host an NCAA Tournament Selection Show Party at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash., on Sunday (March 15). Doors open at 2 p.m. Pacific time, with the program starting at 2:15 p.m. with performances by EWU's "Code Red" band and comments from EWU administration, coaches and players. The selection show airs live on CBS at 3 p.m.
Eastern out-scores Grizzlies 21-6 in final six minutes to overcome an 11-point deficit and beat Montana in front of 7,026 fans on their home floor
The Eagles took a punch from the Grizzlies, then delivered their own.
Out-scoring Montana 21-6 in the final six minutes, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team earned its second NCAA Tournament berth in school history with a come-from-behind 69-65 victory over host Montana in the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game Saturday (March 14) at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Mont.
The Eagles trailed by 11 before the quartet of tournament MVP Tyler Harvey, senior Drew Brandon, all-tournament selection Venky Jois and sophomore Felix Von Hofe scored all 21 points in EWU's furious rally. Eastern also forced four UM turnovers in that stretch, with a basket by Brandon giving the Eagles the lead for good with 1:33 left and EWU its first-ever tournament win over the Grizzlies. The win also made the Eagles a perfect 4-0 this season at Dahlberg Arena.
"It was an improbable comeback, but it just shows the character of this team," said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford, who advances to his seventh NCAA Tournament – including the previous six as head coach of NCAA Division III Whitworth.
"We were down 11 and looked dead in the water," he explained. "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 to maybe start playing not to lose.' We're a lot better shooting team than you saw today. That energy (at the end of the game) helped give us some more offensive efficiency and the ball started going in. We were able to manage the clock with what timeouts we did have, and scored out of those. Getting a five-second call is just denial and being tough. The next thing you know all the pressure shifted and we got it to a one-possession game pretty quick. Then I thought our half-court defense took them out of their rhythm – we made stops and got rebounds."
Eastern will make its second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, and second national postseason appearance in 32 years as a member of NCAA Division I. It was the first time since 2004 – the only other EWU time it advanced to the Big Dance -- that Eastern has advanced to the Big Sky title game, and its sixth appearance in the championship game overall. It was the fifth time the Eagles have played the Grizzlies in the tournament, with EWU losing the first four. The two teams met in the championship game in 2002, which was won by UM 70-66.
Eastern advanced to the title game with a pair of 91-83 victories – against Idaho in the quarterfinals and Sacramento State in the semifinals.
Tied at 42 in the second half, Montana's Brett Weisner scored the first 13 points in a 17-4 Montana run that gave the Grizzlies a 59-48 lead with 6:15 left. To that point, the game featured five ties and nine lead changes, and there were an additional three lead changes after that.
Won-Lost Records . . .
* Now 26-8 on the season after finishing 14-4 in the league, EWU owns school records for overall and Big Sky victories in 32 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I.
* The Grizzlies are 20-12 overall and were co-champions with the Eagles at 14-4 in the Big Sky. Montana, however, won the tiebreaker to gain the No. 1 seed and host status in the tournament and will advance to the NIT as the league's No. 1 seed not advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
* Eastern is 20-48 against the Grizzlies since 1983-84 when EWU became a member of NCAA Division I, including a 9-26 record in Missoula, 11-20 in Cheney and 0-2 on neutral courts versus the Grizzlies, who lead the overall series 65-41. Until winning 75-69 earlier this season, the Eagles had lost their last 12 meetings in Missoula, dating back to a 71-52 Eagle win on Feb. 7, 2004. Eastern's 69-62 win at home last season snapped UM's five-game winning streak against EWU. Eastern has lost 13 of the last 19 meetings and 19 of the last 26, including both games last year and all three meetings in the 2011-12 season.
What It Means . . .
* The Eagles won in the title game for the second timd in six championship game appearances in school history, having won also in 2004. Eastern was runner-up in 1990, 2001, 2002 and 2003. Eastern is making its 13th Big Sky Conference Tournament appearance in 28 years as a member of the league, with a record of 11-11 in its 22 games. The Eagles made their ninth appearance in the semifinals where they are now 6-3.
What's Next . . .
* The Eagles receive an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament and will find out Sunday (March 15) at 3 p.m. Pacific time who and where they will play. Eastern will be trying to join the 2003-04 EWU squad in advancing to the NCAA Tournament. The 2002-03 team advanced to the NIT for EWU's only other national postseason appearance in 32 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I.
Keys to Game . . .
* Eastern had its worst shooting half of the season at 28.6 percent – including only 1-of-8 3-pointers – to score less than 30 points in a half for only the fifth time this season. But the Eagles found their mark in the second half, sinking 16-of-26 shots for 61.5 percent, including eight of their last nine. In the previous meeting, a loss in Cheney by a 77-76 score, the Eagles missed their last four shots.
Top Performers . . .
* Junior Tyler Harvey was just 1-of-7 from the 3-point line, but was 5-of-8 inside the arc to finish with a team-high 18 points and earn tournament MVP honors. He also had four of EWU's seven steals.
* Senior point guard Drew Brandon finished with 16 points, a team-high seven rebounds and a pair of assists.
* Bogdan Bliznyuk, the Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year, was the third Eagle in double figures with 13 points.
* Junior Venky Jois had eight points and five rebounds, and earned all-tournament accolades.
Turning Point . . .
* In EWU's game-ending 21-6 run, Tyler Harvey led the Eagles with eight points, including a three-point play with 43 seconds to play to give the Eagles a four-point lead. Drew Brandon had six, including the basket with 1:33 left that gave EWU the lead for good and two free throws with six seconds to play to ice the win. Venky Jois added a pair of baskets, and Felix Von Hofe made a huge 3-pointer with 2:10 left that gave EWU a 62-61 advantage.
Key Stats . . .
* Eastern entered the game ranked fifth in NCAA Division I in 3-pointers per game with an average of 10.0, and was seventh in percentage at 40.7 percent. The Eagles finished just 4-of-18 for 22.2 percent, but made up for it by making 20-of-36 2-point shots. Brandon led the way by making 5-of-6 inside the arc, Harvey was 5-of-8, Jois was 3-of-5 and Bliznyuk was 4-of-8.
Team Highlights . . .
* The Eagles held Montana to without a field goal for the first five minutes of the game, and in the process jumped out to a 9-3 lead. Eastern led 17-11, but then went 4:26 without a field goal of its own. The resulting 13-3 Montana run erased EWU's advantage and helped give Montana a 30-29 lead at halftime. Eastern held Montana to 40 percent shooting in the first half, but EWU had its worst half of the season at 29 percent and both teams were just 1-of-8 from the 3-point stripe.
Notables . . .
* The Eagles finished 4-0 this season in Missoula, having defeated Montana 75-69 on Feb. 5. Before going 3-0 in this year's tournament, EWU was previously 0-3 in the tourney in Missoula, including its last appearance in the 2012 semifinals when the No. 4 seeded Eagles lost 74-66 to the top-seeded Grizzlies. One of the other losses in Missoula was to Northern Arizona in 2000 when EWU shared the regular season title with Montana and lost the tiebreaker to host the tourney – just like this season.