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Eagles, Vandals ready for Big Sky tournaments

It’s full-speed ahead on the Road to Reno.

After the dust finally cleared Saturday night in the Big Sky Conference regular season, Idaho and Eastern Washington basketball fans can see a clear path deep into the postseason.

That could include Eagle-Vandal matchups in the men’s quarterfinals and women’s semifinals in this week’s Big Sky tournament at the Reno Events Center.

There’s plenty of basketball to be played until then, as the two 12-team tournaments open Monday afternoon with the first round of women’s games. The men – including Eastern – begin play Tuesday.

EWU men: After dropping four straight games, the defending champs fell from third place to sixth, setting up a Tuesday night matchup against Northern Arizona.

Tipoff is at 8 p.m. The winner will face third-seeded Idaho in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

The Eagles (16-14, 10-8 Big Sky), lost their last three games by a combined nine points, which coach Jim Hayford said does nothing to diminish his team’s confidence.

“The bigger picture is that we put together back-to-back winning records and that hasn’t been done in 12 years here,” Hayford said Saturday after a 79-77 loss to regular-season champ Weber State.

“This team has accomplished a lot, and they are ready to tackle the next step, which is the postseason,” Hayford said.

The Eagles will be a solid favorite against 11th seed NAU (5-24, 3-15). EWU swept the season series against the Lumberjacks, winning 96-73 on Jan. 16 in Cheney, and 82-70 three weeks later at NAU.

Idaho men: With eight wins in their last nine games, the Vandals are the hottest team in the Big Sky. That includes a 66-62 win over EWU on Feb. 27 and a home sweep of Weber State and Idaho State.

In the process, Idaho (20-11, 12-6) has reached the 20-win plateau for the first time since 1992-93.

“That’s been our goal for a while – not just 20 (wins), but 20-plus,” Idaho sophomore guard Victor Sanders said after a Senior Night win over Idaho State on Saturday night at the Cowan Spectrum.

“Our next goal is the Big Sky championship, so I believe and I think everybody else at the University of Idaho believes we can do it,” Sanders said.

Idaho will play in the quarterfinals Thursday night against EWU or NAU.

However, the Vandals won’t be overconfident: They split games against both EWU and NAU, and seven of their last eight games have been decided by six points or less.

EWU women: The Eagles had two chances last week to win the regular-season title, but dropped road games to Idaho State and Weber State to finish second behind Montana State.

After Saturday’s loss at Weber, coach Wendy Schuller said, “We had a lot of good looks in the paint, and we just need to finish those shots next time.”

Next time will come Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. against either seventh-seeded Sacramento State or 10th-seeded Southern Utah, who square off Monday night. The Eagles (19-11, 13-5) swept Southern Utah this year, but split with the Hornets.

If EWU and third-seeded Idaho take care of business on Wednesday, they’ll meet in a semifinal Friday.

Idaho women: Like Eastern, the Vandals had a shot at the regular-season title in the final week, but lost at Weber State and Idaho State. And like the Eagles, Idaho finished 13-5 in the conference, but is the third seed because it lost both games to EWU.

“The real prize is Reno and we are well aware of that. We will regroup and get ready to play in the tournament,” coach Jon Newlee said.

UI plays Wednesday at 8 p.m. against the winner of Monday’s No. 6 Weber State-No. 11 Portland State game.

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