MISSOULA - An old nemesis is blocking the final step of a magical basketball season at Eastern Washington; the Eagles must win at Montana tonight to win the Big Sky Conference Tournament and earn only their second trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Not only must Eastern ignore the Dahlberg Arena crowd, the Eagles must find a way past a Montana defense that's the stingiest on the Big Sky Conference. The Grizzlies are giving up just 66.7 points a game while holding opponents to 43 percent shooting from the field.
That won't matter if Eastern shoots the way it did in its 91-83 semifinal win over Sacramento State; the Eagles shot 58 percent from the field and even better - 12 for 17, or 60 percent - from 3-point range.
But what if they don't? That's what happened three weeks ago in Cheney, when the Eagles - and especially national scoring leader Tyler Harvey, who was still recovering from an ankle injury - struggled to find their offensive rhythm.
However, the Eagles are as healthy as they've been since the November win at Indiana, and they've showed it down the stretch. Against Idaho's man defense, Harvey went off for a career-high 42 points. One night later, Sacramento State faceguarded him for the entire first half. Harvey went scoreless, but the rest of the Eagles made the Hornets pay.
So how will Montana defend the Eagles? That's one subplot. Another is the Grizzlies themselves, who are coming off a pair of 2-point wins, including an overtime affair in the quarterfinals against Weber State and an emotional postgame last night against NAU.
In other words, how much do the Griz have left in the tank.
There's one more storyline, and that's the Eagles' postseason situation should they lose. Most fans assume that a 25-9 team that features the national scoring leader would be a lock for the NIT. Not so, according to most of the folks I've spoken with. The NIT gives preference to regular-season conference champions who don't win their postseason tournaments.
Those teams are dropping like flies this week, which means that if the Eagles fall tonight, they could fall all the way to the less-prestigious College Basketball Insider (CBI) or the College Invitational Tournament (CIT).
That's just one more reason tonight is another defining moment for the Eagles.
Would you have it any other way?