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Eastern Washington University Basketball
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Big Sky Tournament: Eastern Washington freshman point guard Ellis Magnuson returns to Boise with title in sights

Eastern Washington guard Ellis Magnuson  chases a loose ball during the first half Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington guard Ellis Magnuson chases a loose ball during the first half Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Cheney. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Coaches were reluctant to recruit Ellis Magnuson, Eastern Washington’s shrewd freshman point guard.

Basketball coaches, anyway.

Before the Boise native committed to EWU last February, he was weighing preferred walk-on offers from Washington State and Boise State – as a wide receiver.

Magnuson, who led Borah High’s basketball team to a 5A State title and was named Idaho’s 5A Gatorade Player of the Year, was also one of the state’s finest receivers in the fall, eclipsing 1,000 yards receiving as a senior.

He appeared set on playing football in college like his father, former Idaho linebacker Josh Magnuson, but pivoted to hoops when EWU extended a full-ride offer.

EWU head coach Shantay Legans believes Magnuson, who has started all 31 games and ranks fifth in the conference in assists per game (4.2), was vastly underrecruited.

So does Magnuson.

“I didn’t get many offers because (coaches) thought I was going to play football,” Magnuson said. “I was really into Washington State (football), but it would have been expensive since I wouldn’t be on scholarship.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play Division I basketball on scholarship. Less than 1% of Idaho boys basketball players get to play at that level.”

Magnuson returns to the Gem State for the Big Sky Conference Tournament at CenturyLink, where No. 1 seed and Big Sky champion EWU will play in Thursday’s quarterfinal.

The Eagles (23-8), who earned a first-round bye, will face the winner of Wednesday’s first-round game between No. 8 seed Weber (12-19) State No. 9 Sacramento State (15-14).

The Eagles swept both teams during the regular season, including a 78-69 home win over Weber State on Saturday to clinch the outright conference title.

“It’s going to be fun,” Magnuson said. “Nobody from Boise gets to really see me play anymore, so it will be cool to show them how much better I’ve gotten.”

Magnuson’s late-season production is one of the reasons EWU, led by conference MVP forward Mason Peatling (17.2 points per game) and All-Big Sky selections Jacob Davison (18.4 ppg) and Kim Aiken Jr. (13.4 ppg), won the program’s fourth conference championship.

In a key late-season road trip, Magnuson scored 14 points in a 69-51 win over Southern Utah and 16 points in a 68-64 win over second-place Northern Colorado, combining to hit 5 of 9 3-point attempts in the sweep.

“He is having a good year for a true freshman,” Legans said. “He’s already one of the best point guards in the league.”

A crafty ballhandler with an innate ability to split defenses with pinpoint passing, Magnuson, whose mother Jessica is a former high school head coach, wears a demeanor well beyond his years.

He’s vocal, but when he needs to be, and lives a much different social life than most of his teammates.

Magnuson camps, fishes and “takes nature walks,” Legans said. He once had a pet alligator at his Boise home.

Legans, who credited assistant coach Bobby Suarez’s relentless recruiting of Magnuson, sees some of his former self in the sturdy, 6-foot-2 guard.

“I’m a point guard, and he sees a lot of the things I see,” said Legans, who started at California for three years before transferring to Fresno State as a senior.

EWU enters the Big Sky Tournament as No. 1 seed for the first time since 2004, when the program earned its first NCAA Tournament berth. The Eagles were the No. 2 seed and conference co-champ when they advanced to the NCAA Tournament a second time.

Under Legans, who was named Big Sky Coach of the Year on Tuesday, EWU reached the 2018 and 2019 Big Sky Tournament title games in his first two years as head coach. Both losses were to rival Montana.

But the Eagles were the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds in those runs. Now they’re expected to earn the school’s third trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“If you’re not ready to go, you can get bounced real early,” Legans said. “And we haven’t done anything yet. Montana has been the team. They’ve won it the last two years.”

Montana, which lost its last two games of the regular season to drop from first place to third, swept the Eagles during the regular season.

Davison, also EWU’s leading scorer last season, was on the bench in a cast during the 2019 tournament, the product of late-season ankle injury. He’s ready to help the Eagles get over the hump.

“It was hard watching from the bench,” Davison said. “I can’t wait to be out there. I’m excited for Boise.”

Idaho opens with Southern Utah

Idaho, which finished 10th in the 11-team conference, opens tournament play Wednesday in a first-round game against Southern Utah.

The 10th-seeded Vandals (8-23) lost both games to the No. 7 Thunderbirds (16-15) during the regular season, blowouts of 73-45 in Moscow and 87-55 in Cedar City, Utah.

The Vandals and first-year head coach Zac Claus, who had the interim tag removed two weeks ago, avoided last place by beating Idaho State in a regular-season finale.

Senior guard and former Clarkston star Trevon Allen (21.2 ppg) leads the Vandals.

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