MISSOULA – The Eagles are happy to be here, but not in the usual sense.
“I was hoping for Montana,” said Eastern Washington freshman guard Parker Kelly, who will get his wish in tonight’s Big Sky Conference men’s basketball semifinal game.
“Sometimes it’s more fun to silence the crowd.”
Indeed, a road schedule that seemed downright cruel three months ago may be the best thing that could have happened to the Eagles: Gonzaga … WSU … Oregon … UCLA … and Montana, where two months ago the Eagles let one get away.
A victory tonight at 7,300-seat Dahlberg Arena would put the Eagles within a game of the program’s second NCAA tournament appearance. Tipoff is at 7 o’clock, following the first semifinal between Weber State and Portland State.
It won’t be easy. The Grizzlies, regular-season Big Sky champs and 23-6 overall, have won 12 straight, including two over the Eagles.
But Eastern (15-16) led for most of the way in that first meeting, Dec. 30 in Missoula.
“I think we played them better than anyone did in their gym,” said Eastern coach Jim Hayford, whose team has often played better on the road this year that at Reese Court.
“I think the guys get fired up more with the big crowd cheering against them,” added Hayford.
Eastern, led by a resurgent Laron Griffin, has toughened up on the boards while continuing to take care of the ball.
Eastern has had fewer turnovers than its opponents in 27 of 31 games, with 487 turnovers forced and 364 committed. The result is a Big Sky-leading turnover margin of plus-4.0 per game.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” said Griffin, a senior forward who has emerged as the Eagles’ emotional leader as well as a force on the boards.
“We’re ready,” said Griffin, “but we need to make some big shots.”
According to Hayford, the Grizzlies have won this year by “playing a consistent 40 minutes” and by having a variety of weapons, including all-conference guard Will Cherry (16.1 ppg), imposing wings Al Steward and Kareem Jamar, and 7-footer Derek Selvig, who can post up on one possession and shoot 3-pointers the next.
“I think we can play more inside-out defense,” says Kelly. “They (Montana) have some solid big guys, so we have to play solid defense and give help to our bigs.”
The Grizzlies are difficult to match up with, says Hayford, but “if you can get one of them in foul trouble, then the matchups become easier.”
Hayford is also counting on a deep bench against the Grizzlies, who rely heavily on their starting five.
The Eagles are making their 12th appearance in the Big Sky Conference tournament, and second straight after a string of four straight misses.
Now 2-4 in six quarterfinal games, Eastern has advanced to the Big Sky semifinals on seven occasions and the championship game five times.
Eastern’s only league title came in 2004 when they beat Northern Arizona 71-59, as EWU made its first and only NCAA tournament appearance.
EWU guard Cliff Colimon is second in the Big Sky Conference in assists (5.1 per game), third in scoring (16.1) and fifth in steals (1.6). … Collin Chiverton is second in the league in 3-pointers made per game with an average of 2.8 and seventh in scoring (14.4). Griffin is first in offensive rebounds (3.1), fifth overall in rebounding (6.8) and 10th in blocked shots (0.6).