If it’s the unknown that draws fans to sporting events, the Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament is made to order.
The difference between the six teams gathering in Cheney is razor thin, starting with their records.
Eastern Washington (18-10) won its first conference title by two games and is the only team to beat every BSC team, but the margin is hardly overwhelming considering the Eagles went 6-4 against the rest of the tournament field with a scoring differential of plus-2.
Meanwhile, the No. 6 seed, Montana State (16-13), swept its opponent for today’s 3:30 tournament opener at Reese Court, No. 3 Sacramento State (15-14), and No. 5 Portland State (15-14), which plays No. 4 Idaho State (15-14) at 6, swept No. 2 Montana.
Beating every team in the field, including a sweep of MSU, was enough to give the Eagles a bye into Friday’s semifinals against the lowest remaining seed – along with Montana (15-13) – but who they might play is nothing more than a guess.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re just happy to be in the position we’re in,” EWU coach Wendy Schuller said. “I’ve thought all year our league was so even across the board and it proved that. … There’s just a lot of parity.
“Going into this tournament, it’s the same thing. We’ve beaten everybody at least once and a couple of them have beaten us. No matter whom it is, we have to be playing good basketball.”
Montana plays the first semifinal Friday at 3:30; Eastern plays at 6.
Home court could prove to be important for the Eagles and not just because the home team has won 18 of the 21 conference tournaments. It might offset their lack of tournament experience since they missed the last three tournaments.
The rest of the field played last year and Montana has played in every tournament.
“With almost everyone seeming to have a win over everyone else in the league, I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t be looking at it as having a good shot,” Montana coach Robin Selvig said. “And not only were there not a lot of differences in wins and losses between the teams, there were a ton of close games. Almost every team could look at it and pick about four games and wonder what could have been if they’d pulled them out.
“That’s where you have to give credit to Eastern, because they did pull them out.”
Selvig’s Grizzlies have the stingiest defense, allowing just 62 points, including a 77-61 win over Sacramento State.
Sacramento State brings the highest-octane offense at 79.6 points a game, which includes a 100-83 win over Montana, the first time a Selvig team has allowed 100 points in his 32 seasons.
Sacramento State also has two of the top five scorers in the Big Sky in leader Charday Hunt (18.8) and Emily Christensen (14.1), plus the top 3-point shooter in Erika Edwards, who is second in rebounding (8.1).
Portland State features Claire Faucher, a senior point guard out of Yakima who holds the Big Sky record with 802 assists. She tied Weber State senior Tonya Schibbe with 6.6 assists a game this year, fifth in the nation, and is second in steals at 2.4.
Montana State’s Erica Perry is second in career steals at 281 and gives the Bobcats an exciting backcourt with Katie Bussey, a top 3-point shooter, to go with blocked shots leader Sarah Strand (2.0), who is seventh in scoring (13.4) and fourth in rebounding (7.3).
Idaho State’s Oana Iacovita is fourth in scoring (14.7) and fifth in rebounding (7.1).
The Eagles have Julie Piper, the conference MVP who averages 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds.
A tournament championship would send the Eagles to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987, when they beat Montana for the Mountain West Athletic Conference title.