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Tuesday, July 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grip on Sports: Eastern’s latest trip to the FCS title game had to deal with a couple of detours

Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere (3) celebrates a touchdown with Jayce Gilder, center, during the second half Saturday  at Roos Field in Cheney. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere (3) celebrates a touchdown with Jayce Gilder, center, during the second half Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • The road to Frisco, Texas, wasn’t a smooth one for the Eastern Eagles this season. And it wasn’t as direct as they might have liked. But, ultimately, it ended in the right location. Read on.

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• There have been chances since 2010. Three of them, in fact. All fell just short, ending with a home semifinal defeat.

But when given a fourth chance Saturday, Eastern Washington responded. In a big way.

The Eagles, 12-2, routed visiting Maine, 50-19, and secured their first FCS finals berth since winning it all early in this decade. The reward? A matchup with undefeated North Dakota State, a school that wins FCS title at a UCLA-basketball-in-the-1960s rate.

But there were two times this season in which even the stoutest of Eastern fans – and they are plentiful, let me tell you – may have wondered if the season was going to end in a somewhat disappointing manner again.

The first came early on, when the Eagles lost 59-24 at Washington State in mid-September. No one at that time knew the Cougars were going to win 10 games. And no one, except maybe WSU coach Mike Leach, knew how good Eastern would be.

After the game, Leach said he wouldn’t be surprised if EWU ended up in the FCS finals. The Eagles were that good in Leach’s mind. The scoffing began immediately, with most thinking Leach was just doing that thing coaches do, talking up opponents to make their team look better.

But Leach was being honest. And his prediction has been borne out.

Not without one big hiccup, however. Quarterback Gage Gubrud, quite possibly the best player in the FCS, was lost for the season just after that. That left the offense in the hands of sophomore backup Eric Barriere, an untested commodity.

His first big test came at Weber State and he didn’t pass. The Eagles lost 14-6 and the Big Sky title, and quite possibly home playoff games, seemed out of reach.

Not to the Eagle defense. They began to dominate. Barriere took control of the offense, which became more rushing oriented, and Eastern hasn’t lost since.

Yesterday, the defense forced two early turnovers, Barriere and the offense turned them into two quick scores and Maine was playing catch-up all day. The Black Bears never could.

The holidays beckon. The practices will be begin again. And, in early January, one more obstacle will loom in the Eagles’ path. It may be the biggest obstacle of the season. But don’t be surprised if they find a way to overcome it.

• Gonzaga couldn’t overcome North Carolina on its home floor last night, especially on the boards. The Tar Heels attacked the offensive glass and handled the Zags’ easily, winning 103-90 in a game that was a throwback to the days before GU built a better defensive mindset.

Great defense includes a lot of elements but none more important than the willingness to end possessions with a rebound. No matter how tough a shot you force your opponent to take, it doesn’t matter much if they continually get two or three shots each possession. UNC had a 42-21 edge on the boards and had 27 second-chance points – to zero for Gonzaga.

Rebounding is a battle. It takes effort, energy and execution. And big bodies. That always helps.

The Zags will get one of those folks back in the mix soon, when Killian Tillie returns from his injury. That will help. But their defense has been slipping recently, and they’ll need to shore that up if they want to reach their goals.

It helps they have four nonconference home games coming up against schools that shouldn’t pose a huge threat.

Texas-Arlington, Denver, North Alabama and Cal State Bakersfield don’t sound like Duke, Creighton, Tennessee and North Carolina to me. But they each are an opportunity to improve before Gonzaga begins WCC play.

The West Coast Conference run should be a bit more challenging this season, for reasons we enumerated yesterday. Bottom line: It’s better. And that should help the Zags prepare for the final third of the season, the NCAA Tournament.

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Gonzaga: Jim Meehan and John Blanchette were blessed with a trip to one of the palaces in college basketball, the Dean Smith Arena. Before the game, athletic director Mike Roth and Mark Few received a tour of the place from UNC coach Roy Williams. Jim has a story about that as well as his game analysis and the keys to the Tar Heels’ win. … John has his column that puts the defeat into perspective. … Tyler Tjomsland has the in-depth photo report. … The guys in the office put together the highlights and a recap. … Around the WCC on Saturday, San Diego picked up another win. … Saint Mary's fell to LSU in Las Vegas. … A buzzer-beating 3-pointer by UNLV sent BYU to an overtime defeat.

WSU: Theo Lawson talked with Leach about his Eastern Washington prediction, which allowed the Washington State coach to delve even deeper. … Theo also talked with Tay Martin and Jahad Woods after practice. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12, the basketball woes continued (so did the football ones, except on the recruiting front). … The best win of the day for the conference? Without out a doubt Arizona State’s victory over Georgia. … Oregon was able to get past Boise State without injured freshman Bol Bol. … Stanford defeated Eastern Washington. And California won its second consecutive game. That’s the end of the good news. … UCLA lost at home to Belmont. … Arizona lost at home to Baylor, who lost to Texas Southern earlier this season. … Oregon State, USC, Washington and Utah all lost games that could have helped the conference’s standing. … In football, this bowl season began like last bowl season, with a loss. Arizona State faded against Fresno State in Las Vegas. … Oregon did pick up a huge recruiting commitment, however. … Washington is preparing for the Rose Bowl.

EWU: The combination of Barriere and Nsimba Webster accounted for four touchdowns in the rout. That’s just part of Ryan Collingwood’s game story. Ryan also has a notebook from the 50-19 rout of Maine. … Dan Thompson has a column from Cheney and Kathy Plonka put together a photo report. … The Eagles started fast in their basketball game at Stanford but fell, 78-62. They are 1-8 this season. … The women fell to UC Riverside in Maui. … In basketball, Weber State lost at home to Utah Valley.

Idaho: The Vandals dropped to 3-7 on the season with an 89-80 home loss to Nebraska-Omaha. Peter Harriman was there and has this game story.

Preps: The Tri-State wrestling tournament concluded yesterday and Dave Nichols was at North Idaho College for the prestigious event. … Mt. Spokane won both ends of the rivalry battle with Mead. That’s part of our GSL basketball roundup. We also have roundups from other boys and girls action.

Seahawks: The 49ers are all that stands between Seattle and another postseason appearance. What do the Hawks have to do to win? …

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• If the Hawks can win in Santa Clara this afternoon, they are headed to the playoffs again. That is somewhat remarkable, don't you think? Until later …

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