Montana rallies from nine-point deficit in the second half to spoil EWU’s attempt at first Big Sky sweep since 2004
Despite the valiant efforts of Cliff Colimon and his teammates, a sweep just wasn’t in the cards.
An 18-1 Montana run in the second half turned out to be the difference in the game, as Eastern Washington University lost to Montana 79-71 Friday afternoon (Dec. 30) in a Big Sky Conference men’s basketball game at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, Mont.
Colimon, Eastern’s starting point guard, scored 19 of his team-high 26 points in the first half to help EWU open a 47-38 lead early in the second period. But EWU managed a lone free throw during an 18-1 run that gave the Grizzlies the lead for good.
The Grizzly outburst turned a 47-38 Eastern lead with 18:11 left in the game into a 56-48 Montana advantage at the 10:49 mark. During that stretch, Eastern was 0-of-9 from the field, 1-of-4 from the free throw line and had two turnovers. Eastern missed a total of 10-straight shots before ending a 9:37 stretch without a field goal.
The Eagles had more field goals than Montana (25-23) and had one less turnover than the Grizzlies (10-9), but EWU was out-scored at the free throw line 27-12. Eastern went from 64 percent shooting in the first half to 27 percent in the final 20 minutes.
“I’m so proud of our team – there is no quit in our guys,” said first-year head coach Jim Hayford. “They are giving everything they have and they want to win so bad – they were playing really, really well. We are going to keep growing as a team so that when we are on the road at a difficult place to play against an excellent team, that we execute really, really well.”
In Hayford’s Big Sky debut two days earlier, the Eagles defeated Montana State 82-66 for the school’s most lopsided victory in Bozeman in school history. The game versus UM was an opportunity for EWU’s first back-to-back victories in league play on the road since the 2003-04 season. That year, EWU swept the Montana schools on Feb. 5 (defeated MSU 64-61) and Feb. 7 (defeated Montana 71-52). Eastern hasn’t won in Missoula in eight tries since.
“I’m not happy with the split – this was a game we could have won,” Hayford said. “We just came up a little short. But there are some really good things we can take out of this.”
Eastern, which next hosts league favorite Weber State on Jan. 5 in EWU’s Big Sky home opener, fell to 7-7 overall and 1-1 in the league. The Grizzlies improved to 9-5 overall and are a perfect 2-0 in the Big Sky. Montana was picked to finish second in the preseason Big Sky Conference media and coaches polls, and Eastern was selected third by the coaches and sixth by the media.
“It was a great ballgame and they found a way to win it,” Hayford added. “I tip my hat to their coaching staff for coaching a good and complete game.”
Colimon made 10-of-17 shots from the field – including 4-of-8 3-pointers – on the heels of a 22-point effort at MSU. He also had four assists and no turnovers in 38 minutes of action.
Eagle senior Tremayne Johnson came off the bench to score a season-high 14 points and Eastern leading scorer Collin Chiverton added 12. However, Colimon, Johnson and Chiverton were just a combined 5-of-24 in the second half after going 14-of-21 in the first half.
As a team, the Eagles made 64 percent of their shots in the first half (16-of-25) and just 27 percent (9-of-33) in the second period. Eastern made eight of its first 13 3-point attempts but just one of its last 13.
“That second half looked like a few of the other halves we’ve had this season,” said Hayford, whose team lost for only the second time in nine games when holding a halftime lead. “We got shots – we only had two turnovers in the second half. I don’t know if it was because of the quick turnaround on the road, but I think the first thing you have to do is credit Montana’s defense.”
Montana iced the game in the second half by making 15-of-23 free throws, including 6-of-8 in the last 1:02. Will Cherry made five shots from the charity stripe in the last 62 ticks of the clock, and finished with 22 points, six assists, six rebounds and a pair of steals. Mathias Ward led all scorers with 28 points, making 9-of-11 shots from the field and 10-of-13 from the line.
“It’s another game where we scored more baskets than the other team from the field, but we were behind 2-to-1 in free throws,” Hayford added. “We just can’t foul so much.”