Montana’s men’s basketball game Thursday night against Eastern Washington was as notable for who didn’t show up to play as who did.
Bogdan Bliznyuk fit in the latter category. The 6-foot-6 junior from the Ukraine used his height and heft to get to the rim at will, scoring 28 points in the Eagles’ 72-60 Big Sky Conference win at Dahlberg Arena. It was the Grizzlies’ third straight loss.
In the former category were Montana sophomore guard Ahmaad Rorie and senior guard Walter Wright, who were in street clothes because of what coach Travis DeCuire termed a “coach’s decision.” Without their two leading scorers – the duo combines to average 28.6 points a game – the Griz struggled to find offense against the Eagles.
The absence of Rorie and Wright was a surprise to most everyone except DeCuire, who on Wednesday said his entire team was “in good standing,” after Wright had been held out of the first half at Sacramento State last Saturday.
DeCuire would not say whether they’ll be in uniform when Idaho visits on Saturday.
“That will again be a coach’s decision,” DeCuire said.
When asked if that was the reason Wright and Rorie were running the scout team in Wednesday’s practice, DeCuire declined comment.
Eastern’s win avenged a loss to the Griz earlier this month in Cheney and moved the Eagles to 6-2 in league, 14-7 overall. Montana fell to 5-4, 10-12.
In that game in Cheney, Bliznyuk had 21 points, but he was 9 for 23 from the field and 0 for 7 from 3-point range. In Missoula, he was 11 for 16 overall and 2 for 3 from downtown.
“I told him after the game that I knew he was going to have a great game in Missoula as soon as the game in Cheney ended,” Eastern coach Jim Hayford said. “He was really disappointed with how he played there. Credit the defense of Montana. He just stepped up and showed why he’s one of the premier players.”
One of the reasons Bliznyuk struggled in that game was the defense of Fabijan Krslovic, one of the few Grizzlies with enough bulk to defend him. But Krslovic fouled out in only 17 minutes of action.
“That was my plan to go to that at some point in time,” DeCuire said. “I thought that Sayeed (Pridgett) was doing a good job on (Jacob) Wiley. … Fab’s size would have been huge on Bliznyuk down the stretch. I was trying to save his fouls, but we had a hard time doing that.”
Without Krslovic on the floor, the Eagles were able to gain a 36-27 rebounding advantage led by Bliznyuk’s 10 boards. The Eagles had 13 offensive rebounds, leading to 11 second-chance points.
“We defended well enough to win the game,” DeCuire said. “We only scored 60 points. We only turned the ball over eight times, but they score 15 points on those eight turnovers. And then they get 11 points on second shots. I don’t know that (Wright and Rorie) make a difference on that, especially the rebounding portion of it. Not having Fab in the game killed us on the glass. That’s where they get those second-chance points, but it would have been nice to score a few more points.”
The Eagles led 35-27 at halftime and couldn’t get comfortable separation from the Griz until the midway point of the second half. Bliznyuk scored on three straight possessions – two drives and a 3-pointer – to give Eastern a 52-40 lead with 10:53 to play.
“I knew I could have played much better” in Cheney, Bliznyuk said. “I could have made some plays to help us win. I knew I had to come here and be aggressive and make plays. I’m pretty pumped right now.”
Montana cut its deficit to single digits on back-to-back buckets by Pridgett to make it 52-44, but a trey by Ty Gibson restored the double-digit lead which the Eagles maintained for the remainder of the game.
Michael Oguine led the Griz with 14 points and seven rebounds. He said whatever transgressions Wright and Rorie were being disciplined for were in the past.
“We’re going to move on,” he said. “On their part, they feel bad they couldn’t be out there to help us. It’s a tough feeling when you can’t do anything to help the team, but we have their back and they have our backs.”
Hayford was impressed by DeCuire’s decision.
“In regards to their two players who were missing, I have respect for Travis that he said, hey, whatever those guys did, which is none of my business, he said the game’s not more important than what needs to be done,” Hayford said. “That shows a classy coaching job by Travis.”
The Griz will have an oppiortunity to halt their three-game slide Saturday against Idaho, another team that will be seeking revenge after losing to the Griz on its home court.
“Disappointed but hungry,” DeCuire said in describing his team’s mood. “We’re confident. We’ve played a very strong schedule, so it’s not like we look down the road and feel like there’s no one we can beat.”