MISSOULA — It was just a few short weeks ago that Montana surprised Eastern Washington, and, really, the rest of the Big Sky Conference with a 27-point blowout of the Eagles in Cheney.
Since that point, Eastern Washington has won six straight games on the way to a 15-6 overall record with a league-leading 8-2 mark in league play. The winner when the teams match up again on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Dahlberg Arena will take over first place in the Big Sky men's basketball race.
A win would give the Grizzlies an important sweep over a rival it could be contending with for the regular-season crown and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
“I think the biggest thing for us is the opportunity for a tiebreaker,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said on Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve had quite a few moments here where we’ve come down and one game has separated teams. Going into the last game of the season, if you lose, you could be in a tie.
“Whether that’s first, second, third, fourth, whatever, and you want as many tiebreakers as possible.”
Montana is not expecting a repeat of the first game. DeCuire said in that game Eastern Washington was prepared and ready, but the Grizzlies were able to surprise them a bit.
An early burst was keyed by a 3-pointer from Kendal Manuel, followed by a layup from Sayeed Pridgett and a quick five points from freshman DJ Carter-Hollinger. The Grizzlies got up by 10 points and that lead never dipped below seven for the remainder of the game.
Even with the blowout victory, Montana seemed locked in at practice Wednesday and no one in the program is taking the Eagles lightly.
“Coaches said for sure it’s not going to be the same outcome as when we played them at their place,” Montana junior guard Timmy Falls said. “I think we’ve just got to come in and respect our opponents even if we beat them by 27. They’re going to come with their A game, so we’ve got to come with ours as well.”
One of the biggest reasons for the blowout by the Grizzlies was the Eagles' uncharacteristically poor 3-point shooting. Eastern Washington hit just 4 of 14 3-point shots, which was a season low in both attempts and makes.
Montana has done a good job running opposing teams off the 3-point line this season and it will be critical to continue to do so against the Eagles.
“I think they’ll be more aggressive,” DeCuire said. “I think we took away some of their strengths and they’ll probably be more aggressive to get to those things …. maybe attack the rim a little more, so we’ve just got to be prepared for them to make adjustments and then react though. We’ll try to anticipate a couple things.”
Carter-Hollinger added: “They’re going to come out ready and prepared because of what we did last time. We have to be even more focused and do what we did last time, but even better and we just have to be really focused for this game.”
The loss might have been a key moment this season for the Eagles. Since the loss, Eastern Washington is outscoring its opponents by 6.6 points per game and is averaging 75.8 points per game during the current five-game win streak.
The Eagles are clearly looking forward to the rematch and the game will be an important test for Montana after coming off an emotional rivalry win over Montana State.
"They embarrassed us and I'll take that squarely on my shoulders … We just have to go out and play. I like our team and I like our chances,” Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans said in a release previewing the game against Montana. “You never know how it's going to work out, but you have to play smart and hard. You have to be mentally tough and I have to be that way as well. Our coaching staff and our players will be ready. It's going to be a fun game."
The Eagles have three players that score in double figures — Jacob Davison (17.9 ppg), Mason Peatling (15.9 ppg) and Kim Aikem (14.8 ppg) — and have a number of players who can shoot and rebound the ball.
In any case, a win in this game will go a long ways for whichever rival ends up on top when the clock hits zero.
“You just gotta remind yourself that you can never expect it to be the same way,” DeCuire said. “I will never use the word easy because it wasn’t easy. We played harder in that game than we’ve played all year. We were more in-tune, engaged than we have been all year. That’s going to be difficult to reenact.”