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Sports >  EWU basketball

Eastern Washington still has outside chance to receive first-round bye in Big Sky Conference tournament

Feb. 23, 2022 Updated Wed., Feb. 23, 2022 at 9 p.m.

Eastern Washington Eagles guard Rylan Bergersen reacts after scoring late during the second half of an 87-83 loss to Northern Colorado on Jan. 22 at Reese Court in Cheney.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington Eagles guard Rylan Bergersen reacts after scoring late during the second half of an 87-83 loss to Northern Colorado on Jan. 22 at Reese Court in Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

By the end of the coming weekend, it is possible the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team could be locked into sixth place in the Big Sky Conference standings.

That would lock them out of a first-round bye in the Big Sky Tournament two weeks from now. But there is still a chance for the Eagles (14-13 overall, 8-8 Big Sky) to sneak into the fifth seed, and to do so they almost certainly need to win their final four-regular season games – starting at Northern Colorado on Thursday.

“I think it’s important,” Eagles coach David Riley said of finishing in the top five and getting a first-round bye. “That’s something that’s been a goal of ours, but at the end of the day, we can’t think too much about it.”

While Montana (17-10, 10-6) is a step ahead of Eastern in the standings, the Eagles have already lost twice to the Grizzlies. Northern Colorado (16-12, 11-5) has one of the most difficult remaining schedules, hosting the Eagles on Thursday and the surging Idaho Vandals on Saturday, followed by a road trip to the Montana schools next week.

The Bears are the only team remaining on the Eagles’ schedule that Eastern has yet to beat this season; Eastern closes out at Sacramento State on Saturday and back at home against Northern Arizona and Portland State next week.

UNC senior Daylen Kountz leads the Big Sky in scoring at 20.6 points per game, an average that is two points more than any other player in the conference. He scored 29 in the Bears’ 87-83 victory over the Eagles on Jan. 22 at Reese Court.

“He’s a three-level scorer,” Riley said of Kountz, who can get to the rim, shoot midrange and also make 3s, a distance from which he has increased his shooting percentage from 32.6% last year to 40.8% this season. “You’ve got to guard him at all levels.”

Eastern is coming off an 83-80 loss to Idaho on Saturday, which ended the Eagles’ three-game winning streak. They didn’t defend particularly well and in focusing on perimeter defense against the Vandals’ four-guard lineup, the Eagles allowed too many baskets near the rim, Riley said.

Idaho sank 31 of 57 field-goal attempts, the best percentage (54.4) by an Eagles’ opponent since Northern Colorado made 57.1% of its shots against Eastern nine games earlier.

Eastern dropped to second in the conference in opponent field-goal percentage (42.9) but remained the Big Sky’s best at defending 3s (31.7%) despite allowing its past two opponents to make a combined 17 of 45 3-pointers (37.8%).

UNC, which ranks first in the Big Sky in 3-point percentage (38.4), made 8 of 22 against the Eagles in January.

Acliese, Idaho’s Smith share Big Sky honor

EWU grad transfer Linton Acliese III scored 20 points in the loss against Idaho on Saturday.

Paired with a 38-point effort two nights before against Montana State, Acliese earned his second Big Sky Player of the Week honor.

“He brings that energy, and for him to show that down the stretch is awesome to see,” Riley said. “That’s what happens with the older guys. They’re seeing the end of their careers and are putting their foot on the gas even more.”

Acliese is second on the team in scoring average with 16.2 points per game behind redshirt freshman Steele Venters (16.9).

Acliese shared the weekly award with Idaho junior Rashad Smith, who scored 40 points in two games.

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