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Sports >  EWU basketball

Eastern Washington men host Sacramento State after COVID-19 pause

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 19, 2022

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

With players and coaches in various levels of quarantine last week, David Riley binge-watched Big Sky men’s basketball games from the comfort of his home.

What the Eastern Washington first-year head coach saw was a conference stacked with skill.

“The talent level this year is significantly better from top to bottom,” Riley said.

He gave the example of the Idaho Vandals, 0-6 in Big Sky play but a team that has lost just one of those games by double digits and scored 93 points against the Eagles on Jan. 8, when Eastern last played a game.

“(Teams) have guys who can beat you on any given night,” Riley said. “I think that’ll show through the rest of the season.”

The season continues Thursday for the Eagles (9-7, 3-2 Big Sky), who have emerged from a COVID-19 protocol pause to host the Sacramento State Hornets (5-7, 1-4) at 6 p.m. at Reese Court in Cheney.

They are scheduled to host Northern Colorado (8-8, 3-1) at 2 p.m. Saturday.

The pair of games will mark the beginning of a busy stretch for Eastern, which had its last two games – at Idaho State and Weber State – postponed and rescheduled for later this month, creating a 12-day gap in its schedule.

Including these home games, the Eagles are scheduled to play six games in the next 12 days, including five times on the road.

The busyness isn’t a problem, though, Riley said.

“If you ask a player if he’d rather play a game or go to a practice,” Riley said, “he’s going to say, ‘play a game.’ ”

The Eagles are a quarter through their conference schedule and right in the middle of the 11-team Big Sky standings. Weber State, currently in first place, is 5-1, followed by Southern Utah (4-1), Northern Colorado (3-1) and then the Montana schools, both at 4-2.

This is redshirt sophomore Ellis Magnuson’s third year in the Big Sky, and he said in his experience “anyone can beat anyone.”

“You’re going to have your better teams and worse teams,” he said, “but we’ve been No. 1 for the past three years and I remember losing to one of the worst teams.”

The lesson, he said, is that the Eagles need to be sharp, every night. That certainly holds against the Hornets whose 1-3 record includes a victory over Saturday’s opponent, the Northern Colorado Bears.

“(The Hornets are) a tough, physical team with a lot of multidimensional players who can score from different levels,” Riley said. “They have that same, typical Sacramento State grittiness.”

The Hornets are coached by Brandon Laird, who was promoted from associate head coach four days before the start of the regular season when Brian Katz retired, citing health reasons. Laird has been in the program for 11 seasons.

So far this season, Sacramento State leads the Big Sky in opponent 3-point percentage (29.2%), just ahead of the Eagles (30.9%). The Hornets are also sixth in defense, allowing 69.3 points per game, about eight points less than the Eagles average offensively (77.3).

The last time the Eagles played was Jan. 8, a 96-93 victory over Idaho in which Eastern shot 54.5% from the field – 10 percentage points above their season average – and sank 14 3-pointers, a season high.

After that, some of the team was still able to practice together while others remained in isolation, per COVID-19 protocols, until late last week. Players were allowed individual gym time if they weren’t able to be with the team, Riley said.

Magnuson said the stretch wasn’t as bad as people might think, though, because they were able to recharge, and players looked for ways to use the time to their advantage.

“(The message was for) everyone to rest up and use this time to get better individually and as a team,” Magnuson said, “and when we get back as a team, we can work on stuff that we need to.”

Food, beverage service suspended at Reese Court

Citing a rise in COVID-19 cases and based on the recommendation of the Spokane Regional Health District, food and beverage services at all Eastern Washington events have been suspended, the university announced Wednesday.

At Reese Court, that applies to all in-venue concessions, including the Sixth Man Club and the Eagle Club hospitality services. Fans will not be allowed to bring in outside food or beverage, either. The policy will be revisited at the end of January, according to the release.

Gonzaga University adopted a similar policy earlier this month.

In accordance with the state mandate, masks are required to be worn at Reese Court, and to enter, fans 11 or older must provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test within the last 72 hours.

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