CHENEY, Wash. -- This win, Jordan Gregory said, was for all the teams that wear Montana on the front of their uniforms.
The Eastern Washington athletic department bragged on social media this week that the Eagles were 8-0 against teams from Montana in football and men's and women's basketball this season. Make that 8-2.
The Griz completed a men's and women's sweep Saturday with an exciting and well-played 77-76 win over the Eagles in front of 4,621 boisterous fans at Reese Court.
At 13-4 in league, the win puts the Griz (17-11 overall) right back in the thick of the Big Sky Conference race for the right to host the postseason tournament. Montana concludes the regular season Saturday at Montana State.
Eastern Washington fell a half-game behind the Griz at 12-4, 21-8 overall. The Eagles have road games at Idaho State and Weber State still on the schedule.
The Griz showed plenty of resolve in bouncing back from a heartbreaking double-overtime loss at Idaho on Thursday.
"Our coaching staff said the only way to nullify the pain we felt on Thursday was to come here and get a win," Gregory said. "There’s been a lot of talk from over here in Washington about how they’ve been beating the state of Montana. It felt good to go out and get a win not only for us, but for our state."
Griz coach Travis DeCuire echoed Gregory, but said there was even more fuel sprayed on the fire.
"It’s a big rivalry to them and it’s a big game to them and they seem to take a lot of pride in beating the state of Montana," DeCuire said. "We didn’t want them getting the (season) sweep and it added to it when they told us to vacate the floor so that they could storm the court, so they basically told us to our face that they were going to get the 'W’ today and I thought that (ticked) our guys off."
It ticked off one Griz in particular: Martin Breunig. The 6-foot-8 junior scored 24 points on 9-for-11 shooting -- 6 of 6 at the line -- and dished out a career-high six assists, many for open 3-pointers.
"I came in angry and I was not satisfied with the last game we played against them and with what I did on Thursday," Breunig said. "I felt I had to step it up. I didn’t want to let my team down."
Breunig's game offset a 27-point afternoon for the nation's leading scorer, junior guard Tyler Harvey. Senior point guard Drew Brandon added 15, but zero in the second half. Gregory was tasked with guarding Harvey until he picked up his fourth foul, then he turned the duties over the Mario Dunn.
"He’s a load man, he’s a load," Gregory said of Harvey. "He’s good going to the basket, pulling up and shooting a three; it’s extremely tough to stop a guy like him. We knew we couldn’t stop him, we just hoped to contain him and we did a good job of limiting the other guys and didn’t let their role players hurt us."
The Griz led by as many as nine in an entertaining first half, which ended with the Griz on top 42-39.
Harvey, though, took over in the first four minutes after intermission, scoring nine points capped by a fall-away 3-pointer that gave Eastern a 52-49 lead.
After the Eagles stretched that to 56-51 on a four-point play by Parker Kelly, the Griz rallied behind a 3-pointer from Brandon Gfeller, and a dunk and an inside bucket from Breunig to regain the lead at 58-56 with 11:16 to play.
"We forced the issue," DeCuire said of Breunig. "We put the ball in his hands down the stretch and let him make plays. That shows the type of player he’s capable of being. He played a little angry today and he’s probably a better player when he’s a little upset."
The lead see-sawed from there until the Griz gained a 75-70 edge on a trey from Gfeller -- he added 14 points while playing just up the road from his hometown of Colfax -- and a rare drive to the rim by the sophomore.
It was still 77-72 after an inside bucket from Breunig on a four-shot possession with 2:35 to play.
Bogdan Bliznyuk and Harvey cut Montana's lead to 77-76 with a pair of layups and the Griz failed to hit the rim on their final possession with 19.1 seconds to play.
Brandon missed a mid-range jumper with 7 seconds left and Kelly missed on another from longer range with 3.7 seconds to play. With fouls to give, Eastern couldn't get the ball back.
"That was a team effort – Riley’s late contest, we did a good job of containing Brandon on penetration when he tried to get to the rim, Jordan gave the matchup to Mario on Harvey – I just think everybody did their job," DeCuire said of EWU's final possession. "Those last couple of possessions I just thought Fab was relentless in terms of not letting (Venky) Jois get to where he wanted to get to."
“It was a great basketball game, and the two teams really put it all out there," Eastern coach Jim Hayford said. "Congratulations to Montana -- they got one more point than we did.”