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Eastern Washington University Basketball
Sports >  EWU basketball

Eastern Washington looks to clinch Big Sky title as it hosts Idaho State in regular-season finale

UPDATED: Tue., March 2, 2021

Eastern Washington’s Tanner Groves battles for position under the basket against Idaho’s Scott Blakney (34) Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021 at Reese Court in Cheney. The EWU Eagles beat the Idaho Vandals 90-64.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington’s Tanner Groves battles for position under the basket against Idaho’s Scott Blakney (34) Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021 at Reese Court in Cheney. The EWU Eagles beat the Idaho Vandals 90-64. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Eastern Washington has a simple objective for an historical pursuit in unusual circumstances: Win the next one.

The conference-leading Eagles (12-6, 11-2) can claim back-to-back Big Sky Conference titles for the first time in program history at Reese Court with a sweep of improved Idaho State (12-9, 7-5) on Wednesday and Friday.

Southern Utah (17-3, 10-2) which is also at the top of the Big Sky standings, is in a similar situation as it chases the crown with a doubleheader at Portland State.

If Southern Utah, which is 14-0 at home but 3-3 on the road, stubs its toe in Portland, it would help EWU’s cause.

The Thunderbirds (.836 Big Sky winning percentage) played one less Big Sky game than the Eagles (.846) this year due to a coronavirus-related cancellation.

Mathematically, there can be no co-champion this year as the Big Sky title will be based on conference winning percentage, as determined by conference officials.

If EWU and Southern Utah, which split in Cheney during the regular season, finish with identical conference losses, the Eagles would still be the Big Sky champion.

Weber State (16-5, 11-3), which hosts Northern Colorado (10-9, 6-7), is also in contention.

But EWU coach Shantay Legans, whose Eagles are on a nine-game winning streak that includes an average winning margin of 13 points, isn’t interested in outcomes in the Rose City and Ogden, Utah.

With a conference title and tournament seeding on the line – the Big Sky Conference Tournament begins in Boise next week – he is taking a game-to-game approach.

“We were in this situation last season. We just need to go 1-0 on Wednesday and focus on that,” Legans said. “Then focus on going 1-0 on Friday.

“The team is well aware of the situation. They read the headlines. There’s going to be nerves, but if there isn’t nerves, you’re probably not ready to play.”

EWU cut down the nets in Cheney last season after beating Idaho State and Weber State on the final weekend. That was the last time the Eagles touched the floor before the cancellation of the 2020 Big Sky Tournament.

If the Eagles want to pull out a ladder and scissors again, they will need to get through a defensive-minded Idaho State team that’s experiencing just its second winning season in 18 years.

Second-year Idaho State coach Ryan Looney, a Central Valley graduate, has a team that ranks sixth in the country in scoring defense (60.6 points per game) and 21st in defensive shooting percentage (39.9 %).

The versatile, high-scoring Eagles, who rank first in the Big Sky at 85.1 points a game, want to avoid playing into the Bengals’ slower tempo.

“They are in fourth place and one of the best defensive teams in the league,” Legans said. “They have good players.”

Idaho State is paced by guards Tarik Cool (13.8 ppg) and Robert Ford (11 ppg, 7.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists) and forward Brayden Parker (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg), all junior college transfers.

North Idaho College products James Carlson (Lake City) and Emmit Taylor III (Lapwai, Idaho) are role players at Idaho State.

EWU is led by Big Sky Most Valuable Player candidate and junior forward Tanner Groves (16.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and do-it-all wing Kim Aiken Jr. (12.3 ppg, 8.2 ppg), who earned back-to-back Big Sky Player of the Week honors last month.

If EWU can pull off the sweep of the Bengals, it would tie the program record for longest winning streak (11), set during the 2003-2004 season when the Eagles reached their first NCAA Tournament.

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