BOISE — Montana State struggled with the No. 1 thing on its scouting report of Eastern Washington.
Ultimately, that was the difference between the Bobcats playing in Friday’s semifinal round of the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament and going home. Eastern Washington scored 21 second-chance points on 13 offensive rebounds in a 90-84 win over MSU in a quarterfinal game at Century Link Arena on Thursday.
“Twenty-one to four on those second-chance points, that was everything,” said MSU head coach Brian Fish. “We had 16 3s. You hit 16 3s, that’s really good, and you should be able to pull it out. We went to the line, made 18 of 20, I believe, from the line. We just didn’t get the rebounds (Thursday). With this group, that’s been the telltale sign: When we rebound and win that battle, it sets a tone. And we just didn’t get it done.”
Eastern Washington and Montana State played a thrilling back-and-forth game, and the Bobcats had advantages in multiple statistical categories. But it all came back to EWU’s offensive rebounding.
Mason Peatling had eight of those offensive boards on his way to game-highs of 14 total rebounds and 28 points. He and Jesse Hunt gave MSU’s bigs fits all night, and Cody Benzel added 22 points, 15 of them coming from behind the arc. It was all just enough for the Eagles to withstand MSU’s late rally.
The teams traded points much of the way with the margin never surpassing six points in the first half. Keljin Blevins scored 14 points and Tyler Hall had 12 in the opening 20 minutes as the teams exchanged buckets during the half. Eastern Washington had 10 of its offensive rebounds in that first half, outscoring Montana State 15-0 in second-chance points. The Eagles also had uncanny success scoring late in the shot clock, hitting numerous difficult shots as their bench counted down the shot-clock seconds.
“It’s tough, but we got to keep fighting. Over the course of the game, that happened plenty of times, and they made a lot of contested shots late in the shot clock,” Blevins said. “It doesn’t wear us down, because you got to stay together and keep fighting, and do the same thing next possession. You just hope the shot comes off, and you’ve got to rebound and finish the possession.”
Those struggles continued for Montana State in the second half, and Eastern Washington gradually extended the lead, ultimately taking a 74-62 advantage on a 3-pointer from Kim Aiken with eight minutes to play.
But Hall answered with a jumper, Blevins scored five straight points, Sam Neumann hit a 3, and Hall sank another 3 to get the Cats within 79-76 with less than three minutes to go.
“I don’t know that in previous years we would’ve done that,” Neumann said of the rally, “but this team’s been really close. We fight for each other and we really wanted to win. We just kept fighting. We didn’t throw in the towel. We knew we would come back, and that’s what we did.”
Hall later hit another 3 to tie the game at 81, but Hunt buried a long jumper and made two free throws to give EWU back a four-point lead. Blevins, who scored 27 points in the loss, knocked down his fourth 3 of the game to bring MSU within one. After EWU’s Tyler Kidd split two free throw attempts, MSU had the ball late with a chance to tie or win the game.
Hall, who surpassed 2,500 career points in the game, went for the win.
“I came off the screen and he sagged off, and I’ve shot that same shot my whole career. It looked good and felt good, but it wasn’t,” Hall said of his go-ahead 3-point attempt from the top of the key.
Following the miss, Eastern Washington (15-17) iced the game at the free throw line and secured its place in Friday’s semifinal round. The Eagles will tip off against Southern Utah at 8 p.m.
MSU, meanwhile, caps the careers of a senior class that Fish said helped rebuild the program. Blevins made 10 of 21 shots to lead the team with his 27 points. Hall had 20, and Neumann finished with seven.
“Couldn’t be more proud of these three seniors that I have up here with me,” Fish said. “What they’ve done and helped put this program back in the right direction and get our team built, rebuilt and do those things, can’t thank them enough. Boy, it sure was fun. The worst thing about it, and I know coaches say it all the time, but I truly mean it, not getting to coach this team tomorrow is not a lot of fun, because every day with this group has been so fun, and a lot of it has a tremendous amount to do with these three guys.”