BOISE – It took Eastern Washington until the final week of the regular season to win back-to-back road games.
Now the surging Eagles – the No. 3 seed in this week’s Big Sky Conference Tournament at CenturyLink Arena – aim to win three straight at a neutral site and earn the program’s third berth to the NCAA Tournament.
EWU (14-17) begins tournament play Thursday, facing the winner of Wednesday’s first-round game between sixth-seeded Montana State (14-16) and No. 11 seed Idaho (5-26).
It’s a familiar position for EWU (14-17), which was seeded third last year in Reno, Nevada, and advanced to the title game before falling to Montana.
Parity is still the theme.
The Eagles split with the league’s best – No. 1 Montana and second-seeded Northern Colorado – but also its worst, last-place Idaho and No. 8 Sacramento State.
EWU, Montana State, No. 4 seed Portland State and No. 5 seed Weber State were in a four-way race for third going into the final weekend.
EWU senior guard Ty Gibson expects a wild tournament.
“On a neutral court, anything can happen, especially the way the league has worked out this year,” Gibson said. “We’ve beaten the top teams, but we’ve lost to the bottom teams. Anyone can beat anyone on any given night.
“Montana and Northern Colorado have separated themselves from the rest of the league, record-wise, but we’ve beaten both of those teams, and teams lower in the league than us have beaten them as well.”
Montana has recently missed the services of standout forward Jamar Okoh (15 ppg, 8 rpg), who has been out with an injury since Feb. 9, when the Grizzlies edged EWU 75-74 in Missoula.
EWU has been paced all season by forwards Jesse Hunt – this week’s Big Sky Player of the Week – and Mason Peatling. The status of high-scoring guard Jacob Davison (21 ppg) is still uncertain.
Davison, who has missed the last seven games with a high ankle sprain, will take his cast off early this week, according to head coach Shantay Legans, and may be a game-time decision.
After playing the last three conference tournaments in Reno, Legans is looking forward to the experience in Boise, a city much closer to the majority of conference’s schools and fans.
“It’s in Big Sky Country, so it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Legans, whose team has beaten every team in the Big Sky this season. “It’s a great city. It will have good feel to it. It’s a little more safer environment.”
EWU has a Big Sky-best three-game winning streak heading into the tournament.
Idaho has lost 16 of its last 17 conference games. Earlier this season, it fell to NCAA Division II Northwest Nazarene and NAIA Lewis-Clark State.
Idaho had annually been one of the top-tier teams in the conference, but the Vandals were hit hard by graduation last season and have been led primarily by underclassmen. The Vandals also lost returning starting center Nate Sherwood to a season-ending illness.
Trevon Allen, a former Clarkston star, leads the Vandals at 13.8 points, four rebounds and three assists a game.
Vandals coach Don Verlin said his team has shown more fight down the stretch.
“The last four of our five games we started to play harder,” Verlin said. “We’re going to go (to the tournament) and continue to fight and look to pull off some upsets.”
If Idaho wants to survive the first round, it will have to get past Montana State sensation Tyler Hall.
Hall, the conference’s all-time leading scorer (2,475 points) helped the Bobcats sweep the Vandals during the regular season.
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