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Thursday, December 12, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Blanchette: Big Sky also benefits from Eastern’s ascent to first

Sacramento State Hornets guard Nick Hornsby, right, can’t stop Eastern Washington forward Venky Jois as he heads to the basket Thursday. (Colin Mulvany)
Sacramento State Hornets guard Nick Hornsby, right, can’t stop Eastern Washington forward Venky Jois as he heads to the basket Thursday. (Colin Mulvany)

There was no sign of anyone from the Big Sky Conference hierarchy on hand to outwardly root against Sacramento State during Thursday’s big basketball summit at Reese Court – though no one checked inside Swoop’s costume to see if that might be commissioner Doug Fullerton flapping Eagle feathers around the court with talons crossed.

Still, Eastern Washington didn’t just do itself a favor in staving off the Hornets 64-61 in front of 3,114 – the biggest Reese jury in three years.

The Eagles may have done the league a solid, too.

Winner doesn’t take all in the Big Sky regular season, but it does get to stage the league tournament which serves as the off-ramp to Bracketville. At least, it does for this one final year. Even as this season’s horse race heads for the wire, five sites are jostling to position themselves to be next year’s hosts when the Sky gets a new, if not neutral, format. Spokane/Cheney are teaming up on a bid – hands across the West Plains, if you will.

But for now, all eyes are on the standings, which Sacramento State led by a game in the win column before Thursday. Problem is, the Hornets Nest – that’s what they call the home gym – accommodates all of 1,102 customers, or about what the Apple Store in downtown Spokane holds whenever a new iPhone comes out.

If the Hornets finish first, the league is leaning toward taking the tournament over the Sierra Nevada to Reno because the Nest is inadequate and closer buildings are booked with the likes of dance championships, Marvel superheroes and police fundraisers.

Awkward.

Eastern’s victory didn’t settle anything – three weeks remain in the regular season after this one. But it could be big, and it at least showed that Reese can supply some tournament atmosphere.

“It was tough to find spots in the crowd that were open,” EWU senior Parker Kelly said. “My first couple years here, there were lots of those.”

Kelly also allowed himself to stray from the just-another-game talking points to call the win “big-time” and confess, “In the back of your mind, you knew it had a little extra to it.”

And a little extra missing – it was the third straight game the Eagles played without NCAA scoring leader Tyler Harvey, still recovering from a deep thigh bruise. Harvey warmed up, changed into street clothes to watch from the bench and then was back on the court until after the building had emptied until 9:30 p.m. trying to keep his shot sharp.

Eyewitness scouting report: still looks like he can make a few.

How much this had to do with the Eagles letting a 16-point lead get hacked down to one in the final minute is hard to gauge. Easier to see how Eastern created that cushion in the first place: slick 3-point shooting from Kelly, Ognjen Miljkovic and Drew Brandon, and the same inspired defense that allowed the Eags to sweep their Montana road swing without Harvey last weekend.

Central to that: a season-high 13 blocked shots, and a nice mix of man and zone that held the Hornets to 40.7 percent shooting, not quite 10 less than their No. 8 mark nationally.

Both teams have four road games apiece remaining, so there are likely to be further amendments to the standings – perhaps even from behind, where Montana and Northern Arizona lurk. But Eastern coach Jim Hayford wasn’t above pausing to mull the fact that two of the Big Sky’s back-seat drivers are taking turns at the wheel – with rosters made up of players who had no other Division I offers.

Coach Brian Katz’s Hornets, in fact, have less pedigree than that: This will be their first winning season since joining Division I in 1991. They averaged eight wins a year for the last 23.

The Eagles, meanwhile, can have their second 20-win D-I season by beating Portland State on Saturday, when Harvey insisted he’ll return.

The two coaches go back 20 years, and Hayford noted that he’d recruited eight of Katz’s junior college players while an assistant at Azusa Pacific and later at Whitworth, including former Division III region player of the year Ryan Symes.

“We’re both kind of took the nontraditional track to Division I,” Hayford said. “Usually it’s paying your dues as a D-I assistant and somebody with a big name gets you a job. We had to win our way to Division I.

“I’ve got to imagine there are some fans in Ogden and Missoula thinking, ‘What in the world are Sac State and Eastern doing on top of the standings?’ ”

Well, in the Eagles’ case, trying to keep the league tournament from being an unscheduled afterthought amid the craps tables.

And keep their own good times rolling, too.

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