Monday’s official announcement that Eastern Washington had qualified for the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament by virtue of its 59-55 overtime win over Montana on Saturday caught Eagles coach Kirk Earlywine and his players a bit off guard.
Not because they had made the tourney for the first time in five years, but because they had gone to bed Saturday thinking it was already a done deal.
According to Earlywine, he was told by an EWU official immediately following Saturday night’s game that his Eagles (9-19 overall, 6-9 Big Sky) had secured one of the six BSC tournament berths with their upset win over the Grizzlies at Reese Court.
As it turned out, however, there was still a chance that Sacramento State – which was hosting Weber State later that evening – might make the tournament by upsetting the Wildcats and creating a multiple-team tie for the sixth and final spot.
But the Hornets lost, assuring Eastern of its berth.
Still, it wasn’t until conference officials met Monday and examined all possible tiebreaking scenarios that the Big Sky officially announced the six teams – Northern Colorado, Montana, Weber State, Northern Arizona, EWU and Montana State – that have qualified for this year’s tournament, regardless of what might happen during tonight’s final four regular-season conference games.
“Our kids thought they were in after our game Saturday night, and I don’t believe they were ever told anything different,” Earlywine said. “I know I was going with what I had been told – that we were in. And by Sunday morning, all of my thoughts were on Weber State.”
The Eagles play their regular-season finale against the Wildcats (17-10, 11-4) in Ogden, Utah, tonight, in a game that could still have major postseason implications.
Eastern, with a win, would secure the No. 5 seed in the tournament, provided Montana State (12-17, 6-9) loses at home to Idaho State. Weber could still earn a share of the regular-season, and the No. 1 tournament seed, with a win over EWU and a Northern Colorado (18-10, 12-3) loss to visiting Sacramento State.
“There is still a lot to play for, and even though we’re in the tournament, our entire focus is on trying to beat Weber State,” Earlywine said. “It’s the only thing we control at this points.
“After (tonight’s game), we’ll turn our attention to the conference tournament.”
Weber, which ranks No. 2 in the nation with a 3-point shooting percentage of 42.3 percent, thumped the Eagles 80-68 in Cheney in an earlier meeting. The Wildcats were 9 for 14 from 3-point range in that matchup, and Earlywine said a big key to tonight’s game will be defending the perimeter.
“We’ve got to make sure we limit their 3-point chances, and make sure that the ones they do get are contested,” he said.