Eastern Washington’s disappointing basketball season came to a disappointing end Tuesday night.
It was fitting the final blow, so to speak, was delivered by Montana State.
The Bobcats, who opened the Big Sky Conference season with an 82-79 win at Eastern, lost 67-58 at Idaho State, ending the Eagles’ string of nine consecutive appearances in the conference tournament.
The Eagles, Bobcats and Bengals tied for fifth at 8-8 in Big Sky play. Because the Eagles lost to MSU twice, they were eliminated by the tiebreaker rules, giving the Bobcats and Bengals the last two berths in the tournament.
“It shouldn’t have come down to us waiting for someone to lose,” said Eastern sophomore star Rodney Stuckey.
Stuckey had no more to say than he did after Saturday’s regular-season finale about the possibility of declaring for the NBA draft. He said he would consider all the options, but contrary to on-line reports, had not made any decision.
“The season’s over – there’s nothing we can do about it,” Stuckey said. “Without a doubt, I’m disappointed. We came into the season with high expectations and man, those expectations, we didn’t reach them. These last three games we were starting to play more to our potential. Other people were stepping up. I think if we would have gotten into the Big Sky we could have gotten on a roll.”
EWU finished 15-14. Idaho State is 13-16 and Montana State 11-18.
“For whatever reasons, it’s been the eight degrees of Montana State happening to Eastern Washington,” Eagles head coach Mike Burns said. “We have our worst performance of the year at Montana State and probably our worst home game against them. They probably play their worst half of the conference season tonight, going 0 for 13 from the 3-line. That’s a lot of ‘worsts’ there.
“I know our staff and players are deeply disappointed. We felt like we were playing some of our best basketball the last couple of weeks.”
EWU’s streak of nine straight tournaments was the fifth longest in Big Sky history and was the longest active streak.
“I wanted to make the playoffs,” said junior Marcus Hinton, who finished the season on fire as the Eagles won three straight. “I felt like we were playing good. That’s what kind of stinks – we didn’t make it.”
Eastern was picked to finish third in preseason polls by both the coaches and media. It is the first time a team with at least a .500 record failed to make the tournament since the conference expanded in 1970-71.
“It was just that five-week stretch where we played eight out of 10 on the road,” Burns said. “We needed at least five wins and it was 4-6. That was the difference.”
Eastern needed Idaho State to lose its last two games at home and Montana helped out with an overtime win on Monday. Montana State also had motivation, as a win would have given the Bobcats a first-round home game.
“After the overtime game, I thought it favored Montana State because you put forth so much effort then can have a letdown,” EWU senior Rhett Humphrey said. “I thought Montana State had the upper hand, but Idaho State’s back was to the wall and it looked like they came out fighting.”
Burns is already looking ahead.
“We’ll take a week or two to decompress, do a little recruiting, then move forward,” he said. “I really like the group that’s coming back. We have a lot of good players. I think the future is very bright.”
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