Really, who needs BracketBusters?
Not Eastern Washington. Not Northern Colorado. Nobody in the Big Sky Conference.
In the middle of February, college basketball’s most irrelevant contrivance sends islanders to frigid Montana, Metroplex upstarts to thin-air Utah and, locally, the Eagles to Big West straggler UC Irvine for a game that nets them nothing much but a rematch at home next winter.
Simply, there isn’t anything at stake Saturday but a score for the BrackBusters fillers from the Sky, the WAC, Southland and Big West.
Whereas Wednesday night, well, things were downright desperate.
“I was asked if we didn’t win, would our back be against the wall?” EWU coach Jim Hayford said. “I said no – we would be part of the wall.”
For about 20 minutes against UNC, the Eagles looked to have the same pulse as that wall. To say Eastern is a second-half team is to say Jeremy Lin has caused a mild stir on Twitter – and this time a second half was enough to let all the air out of the Bears, 79-76.
The reward was instant and tangible.
Down 16 points with 11 minutes to play, the Eagles were looking at slipping into a sixth-place tie with UNC in a conference that only takes six to its postseason tournament – and the Bears would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Instead, EWU is 1 1/2 games clear of Northern – actually, the Eags are in fifth and only a game out of third place. Staggeringly, that would give them a home game if the season ended now.
Of course, two weeks of play remain, and the Big Sky teams still remaining on the schedule are ahead of them in the standings. And that means three more first halves for the Eagles to sleep through.
“My crazy team,” Hayford sighed.
Even the team grasps that it’s crazy.
“We shouldn’t be used to it,” guard Jeffrey Forbes said, “but I guess we are.”
No, they shouldn’t be. The urgent time of year has been reached. So where was Eastern’s urgency? In the early going, the Eagles couldn’t guard the 3, admired UNC’s high-low game from afar and took the unforced error to high art. And in their last 13 possessions of the first half, they missed six shots and turned the ball over seven times.
“If I’m coaching the Cheney Blackhawks,” Hayford said, “I’d say let’s play Eastern in a 20-minute game.”
It was put to Forbes that, frankly, this team often looks as if it hasn’t grown much since New Year’s.
“You know where we’ve improved?” he said. “In not giving up.”
Touche. Pretty good skill.
So much of that seems to come from the point where Cliff Colimon is a hard hombre to handle – with a points-rebounds-assists line of 22-9-9, it’s certain the Bears never did. But it spreads out pretty quickly, and Wednesday it spread to freshman backup Parker Kelly, who cold-bloodedly drained three 3s in the last 4 1-2 minutes, including the winner.
“Another thing that helped us is drawing fouls on them, so that we could score points with the clock stopped,” Hayford said. “We’ve fouled so much that it’s nice to be on the other side of that equation.”
No kidding. This was only the sixth time in 26 games the Eags have shot more free throws than their opponents – and by a whopping 10. Surely this will trigger a suspension of the officiating crew from the league office.
If the Bears lose to league-leading Weber State at home next week, a single EWU win makes it a Big Sky tournament team for a second straight year. That’s hardly a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it’s something.
“I hope it doesn’t make my team relax and play another first half like this the next time out,” Hayford said.
As the Eagles wandered out of Reese Court and into the night, Hayford spotted his happy headache, junior Collin Chiverton, who still leads the Eags in scoring but as recently as a week ago was described by his coach as not being “emotionally able to help us,” a tap dance so artful it would win any talent show.
“I want to be mad at you,” he told Chiverton, “but your percentages are right and you score 19 points in 21 minutes. But still no rebounds.”
“I thought I was in tune to get at least two or three,” Chiverton smiled.
“You’re really setting those goals high, Collin.”
“You have to start somewhere, coach.”
Hayford shook his head, but couldn’t dodge the obvious.
“It’s nice to be able to laugh,” he said.
And you can, when your Big Sky bracket isn’t busted.