RENO, Nev. – Nothing like a makeup call to liven up the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament.
Two days after Eastern Washington’s Jacob Wiley was named Player of the Year over North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker, the Big Sky coaches flipped the script on Wednesday.
Despite leading Eastern to a second-place finish in the regular season – five spots better than predicted by those same peers – Eagles coach Jim Hayford lost out to North Dakota’s Brian Jones for coach of the Year.
The league doesn’t release voting results, but Hayford presumably finished behind Jones, who led the Fighting Hawks to the regular-season title.
For the same reason, it’s also unclear whether Hayford’s chances were hurt by the Eagles’ loss at lowly Northern Arizona in the regular-season finale at Northern Arizona.
Led by preseason Player of the Year Hooker, UND was picked by the coaches to finish third, narrowly behind Weber State and Idaho. The Fighting Hawks also earned three first-place votes out of 11.
North Dakota finished 19-9 overall and 14-4 in the conference, one game ahead of Eastern.
“Brian’s done a great job this year,” said Hayford, who has won six coach of the year honors at the collegiate level.
“And every time, I’ve won a championship that year,” Hayford said.
Eastern came into the season full of questions. The biggest: How would Hayford replace high-scoring forward Venky Jois and playmaking guard Austin McBroom?
Two games into the season, the Eagles faced another challenge when starting swingman Julian Harrell was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
The results were similar to the Big Sky football awards. Eastern and North Dakota neatly divided those prizes as well.
Eastern’s Gage Gubrud and Cooper Kupp were named co-Offensive MVPs, while North Dakota’s Bubba Schweigert was the Coach of the Year.
Jon Kasper, the Big Sky’s assistant commissioner in charge of championships, said Wednesday that neither the football nor basketball coaches hold conference calls among themselves to decide postseason awards.
Still up for grabs is the biggest prize: the Big Sky tournament title and the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
EWU and North Dakota could settle things at the Reno Events Center on Saturday night. Each must win twice this week to make that happen.
In the meantime, Hayford reflected Wednesday on the challenges he and his staff overcame on the way to a 13-5 Big Sky record and 21-10 overall going into Thursday’s quarterfinal against Sacramento State.
Speaking for himself and his assistants, Hayford said, “I think we really helped this team find an identity and consistently coach to that identity.
“That identity was going to be toughness and hard work, no excuses, and play with confidence and unselfishness, and they really bought into that.”
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