Eastern Opens Season With A Win

Eastern Opens Season With A Win

The first one is in the books.

The head coaching career for Shantay Legans got off to a defensive-minded start, as the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team officially opened the 2017-18 season with an 82-61 victory over Walla Walla University from Walla Walla, Wash, on Saturday (Nov. 10) at Reese Court.

Eastern held Walla Walla to a 2-of-20 shooting stretch to pull away. The Eagles held the Wolves to 34 percent shooting in the game and had a 45-33 rebounding advantage.

Four Eagles scored in double figures, led by senior Bogdan Bliznyuk with 18 points and four assists. Junior Jesse Hunt had the first double-double of his career with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Eastern made 10-of-35 3-point shots, with Ty Gibson hitting three en route to 11 points. Sophomore Luka Vulikic had 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

“Coming out of halftime we picked up our defensive effort and that was good for us,” said Legans, a former Eastern assistant coach. “But we need to do that from the start. A positive is that we put up 35 3-pointers, but the negative is we made only 10. I know we’re a better shooting team than that, and we’ll get those same looks on Sunday and knock them down.”

The Eagles now begin a monstrous 10-game road stretch by playing the Washington Huskies in Seattle on Sunday (Nov. 12) at 5 p.m. Pacific time. The stretch continues at Stanford next Tuesday (Nov. 14), meaning the Eagles will play three games in five days.

“I was excited about how our team played,” Legans added. “We followed the game plan, but we just missed some open shots. Our focus was maybe looking forward to UW. It showed a little bit, but our guys played hard and that’s what we are looking for.”

Records . . .

* The Eagles are now 1-0 on the season. The Eagles are coming off a third-straight appearance in a national postseason tournament, and were 22-12 overall a year ago. Eastern finished 13-5 in the Big Sky to finish second behind regular season champion North Dakota, and then the Eagles advanced to the semifinals of the league tournament.

* Now 0-2 on the season, Walla Walla is a member of the NAIA and competes in the Cascade Collegiate Conference. The Wolves were 3-26 a year ago, with a 2-18 league record. They opened their season on Oct. 29 with a 95-65 loss to Lewis-Clark State, ranked No. 24 in the NAIA.

What it Means . . .

* The Eagles embark upon an epic road trip with a 1-0 record. Three Pac-12 Conference opponents and a stretch of 36-straight days without a game at home are the task ahead. After opening the season at Reese Court in the debut of Legans’ head coaching career, the Eagles go on the road for 10-straight games. The Eagles play at Pac-12 foes Washington on Nov. 12 and Stanford on Nov. 14, respectively, before playing three games in Las Vegas.

What’s Next . . .

* The Eagles travel to Seattle to play the Washington Huskies on Sunday (Nov. 12) at 5 p.m. Pacific time. That game, as well as EWU’s meeting at Stanford on Tuesday (Nov. 14), will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks. Washington also has a first-year head coach in Mike Hopkins, as he inherits a team that was 9-22 a year ago and 2-16 in the Pac-12 Conference. The Huskies opened their season with a 91-87 exhibition opener versus Saint Martin’s and former EWU assistant coach Alex Pribble, and play their official opener against Belmont on Friday (Nov. 10).

Keys to Game . . .

* The Eagles allowed Walla Walla to make nine of its first 19 shots, but just two of its next 20 as EWU turned a deficit into a double-digit lead. The Eagles led for all but 4:51 of the game and led by as many as 25 with six minutes left in the second half.

Turning Point . . .

* Trailing early 9-7, Eastern went on an 8-0 run to take the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Ty Gibson with 13:02 to play. The Eagles closed the half by holding Walla Walla without a field goal for the last 6:56, using a 12-0 run to take a 39-26 lead at halftime.

Top Performers . . .

* Senior Bogdan Bliznyuk , a candidate for Big Sky Conference Player of the Year honors, made 5-of-9 shots from the floor and 8-of-9 free throws to finish with a game-high 18 points. The only player in school history to have a triple-double, he finished with four assists and three rebounds.
* Junior Ty Gibson , who along with Bliznyuk is serving as a team co-captain this season, hit 3-of-7 3-pointers and finished with 11 points and a pair of assists.
* Junior Jesse Hunt had a career-high 10 rebounds to go along with 11 points and recorded the first double-double of his career. He made 4-of-7 shots from the field and had three assists and a pair of blocked shots. His previous high for rebounds was eight.
* Sophomore Luka Vulikic had a career-high four assists, and came two points from his career high for scoring. He made 5-of-12 shots and finished with 10 points, as well as eight rebounds.
* Seven-foot graduate transfer Benas Griciunas was held to four points on 2-of-6 shooting, and also had five rebounds.
* Sophomore forward Mason Peatling chipped in seven points and seven rebounds, and senior guard Sir Washington also had seven points.

Key Stats . . .

* Eastern made 42.6 percent of its shots from the field, including 19-of-33 (57.6 percent) from inside the 3-point stripe. The Eagles made only 10-of-35 (28.6 percent) from 3-point range, but held the Wolves to 18-of-53 shooting in the game for 34.0 percent.

Other Team Highlights . . .

* A total of 13 Eagles played in the game. Eastern’s eight newcomers this season include Lithuanian seven-footer Benas Griciunas, a graduate transfer who has 59 games of NCAA Division I experience. His best scoring performance while at UNC Charlotte was 14 points and his best as a freshman at Auburn was eight. He had 12 rebounds once while playing for the 49ers. Other newcomers who saw action for the Eagles were redshirt freshman Jacob Davison and true freshmen Richard Polanco and Jack Perry. Brendan Howard, Kim Aiken Jr., and Tanner Groves sat out the game as potential redshirts.

Notables . . .

* Led by Big Sky Conference Player of the Year candidate Bogdan Bliznyuk , the Eagles feature a team with size throughout their lineup. A 6-foot-6 point-forward, Bliznyuk was named to the preseason All-Big Sky team, and is one of 10 returning players to the Eagle roster. The Eagles return eight letterwinners from last year, including a trio of returning starters — Bliznyuk, Mason Peatling and Luka Vulikic. The others are Cody Benzel , Grant Gibb , Ty Gibson , Jesse Hunt and Sir Washington , with Jacob Davison and Joshua Thomas returning as a 2016-17 redshirts. A senior, Bliznyuk was a second team All-Big Sky Conference selection a year ago, and was the league’s Freshman of the Year in 2014-15.

Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .

On Win & Walla Walla: “We won, and that’s what we came to do. Walla Walla played a great game – they played really hard and switched up their defense between man and zone well. They tried to spread us out and use their size to their advantage – they were a little bit smaller and quicker.”

On Bliznyuk: “They sent two or three guys at him, but he did a great job of getting other players open looks. That’s all you can ask for — he’s not forcing shots up. We talked about it before the season started that he was going to be double-teamed and he has to make sure he’s making the pass. He’s making the pass and that’s exactly what we’re looking for. He’s doing a great job of leading our players, getting them in the huddle and talking to make sure we are doing everything the right way. He’s a great captain.”

On Vulikic: “He played with more confidence. We were playing a little bit faster, even though it didn’t look like it at times. He’s getting out and playing a little more free. He has to get a couple of more passes here and there, but he did a great job of running the team and that’s exactly what we are looking for.”

On Fan Support: “The crowd was awesome. That’s something we’re building toward, and winning does that. When we go on the road and win some of the games like I know we will, it will be packed all the time. We want to get all the students here, and get the Cheney fans and community come to support us. We have a great bunch of guys and a great brand of basketball. We have a great player here in Bogdan, and it’s special to be able to see him develop as a freshman and have a chance to break the all-time scoring record as a senior. That’s history, and people need to come and watch him because he’s something special.”

On Road Stretch: “It’s going to be a great experience for our guys and will help us get ready for Big Sky play. We’ll see who can play, and at what times during the game. It’s a learning experience for me too, and the first game was a learning experience. Going on the road and playing seven straight, coming home and then going back on the road, will tell us a lot about our team. We’ll see our character and where we are. I think we have a veteran group who knows what we are really playing for once we get into Big Sky play.”