Eastern Washington, which snapped an 18-game road losing streak with last Saturday’s 69-67 win over Idaho State, will play four of its last six games – including three of its last five Big Sky Conference matchups – at home as it tries to nail down a berth in the six-team conference tournament for the first time since 2006.
But with all three of those conference games against teams – Weber State, Montana and Montana State – that are in the top half of the conference standings, Eastern coach Kirk Earlywine plans to impress on his players the difficult nature of their challenge.
“We can’t look at it as a magic wand and think that just because we’re at home we’re going to win,” said Earlywine, whose Eagles are 7-3 at Reese Court and tied with MSU for fifth place in the Big Sky standings with a 5-6 conference record. “We still have to show up and compete.
“We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination, in terms of making the conference tournament, because the team we have coming in here are all ahead of us and battling for the same things we are.”
Eastern still has a chance to earn one of the top four seeds in the BSC tournament and host a first-round game. But Earlywine is quick to note that Weber State (6-4) and Montana (8-3) can both still win the regular-season conference title, and earn the right to host the semifinals and finals – along with a first-round bye.
Leading the Sky
Eastern Washington leads the Big Sky in 3-point field-goal defense, holding conference opponents to just 32.3 percent shooting (51 of 158).
The Eagles also boast the BSC’s most accurate free-throw shooter in sophomore guard Kevin Winford, who has made 88.9 percent (24 of 27) of his foul shots against conference foes.
WCC shapes up
The West Coast Conference title race should become much clearer by late Saturday night.
Gonzaga (15-9, 5-3 WCC) visits Loyola Marymount tonight and Pepperdine on Saturday. Conference-leading Saint Mary’s has road dates with Santa Clara, tied for third with Gonzaga, tonight and second-place San Francisco on Saturday.
“Definitely seeing the history of what Gonzaga has done, we just want to keep it going,” Bulldogs junior guard Marquise Carter said. “We know we’ve been struggling, but we know we’re a really good team when we put all our pieces together. That’s all we’re trying to do right now.”
So, are the program’s streaks of 10 consecutive WCC titles and 12 straight NCAA tournament appearances added motivation or added pressure?
“It fuels us,” senior center Rob Sacre said, “because we have a tradition here of winning. It doesn’t faze us. I think it motivates us more so that when we win it’s a special thing.”
It’s widely believed Gonzaga will have to win the WCC tournament to reach the NCAA tournament.