BOISE – As Ethan Price’s last-ditch effort to tip the basketball into the net hit only rim and the buzzer sounded on Thursday night, the Northern Colorado men’s basketball team celebrated a 68-67 victory and a berth in the Big Sky Tournament quarterfinals – a spot that so nearly was Eastern Washington’s.
Linton Acliese III, whose put-back attempt with 1 second left rolled off the rim, remained where he was in front of the basket, shifting his hands to his knees as the Bears players celebrated behind him.
Rylan Bergersen – who, like Acliese, came to the Eagles as a grad transfer before the season – stood 12 feet away, just inside the 3-point line. He untucked his Eagles jersey and lingered a few moments longer on the Idaho Central Arena court that Berto Bergersen, his father who is now an EWU assistant coach, starred on as a member of the Idaho Stampede.
“For me, coming back to Boise to play my last go round in the Big Sky Tournament was like a dream come true,” Bergersen said afterward. “I’m really excited I got this opportunity, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Eastern Washington’s regular season is over, though a postseason tournament appearance is still a possibility.
In David Riley’s first season as head coach after seven years on the team’s staff, the Eagles went 18-15 and finished sixth in the Big Sky. Relative to the expectations of the league’s coaches and media – who predicted the Eagles would finish eighth and seventh, respectively – the season was a success.
Eastern returned six players from the team that won last year’s Big Sky Tournament and nearly upset Kansas in the NCAA Tournament a week later. None of those six averaged more than the 15.7 minutes Ellis Magnuson did, a total that ranked eighth on the team.
Then, in the second game of the season Casson Rouse, who played nearly as many minutes as Magnuson did a year ago, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
But the Eagles – with an entirely new starting five and an entirely new coaching staff aside from Riley – mustered an 11-9 conference record.
“I don’t think anyone thought we would have this type of season. We had a bunch of new people,” said Acliese, who didn’t join the team until mid-summer. “Obviously we didn’t achieve our goals how we wanted to … but we had a pretty successful season.”
Redshirt freshman Steele Venters, who only once scored in double figures last season, did so 26 times this year and was named Second Team All-Conference.
Acliese, who played for Division II San Francisco State last season, was also named to that team and led the league in shooting percentage (52.5).
Bergersen, who played the last two seasons at Central Arkansas but wanted to finish his college career with a winning program, emerged as the team’s most aggressive player at attacking the basket and drawing fouls.
Angelo Allegri, who is expected to return for a final season, played at UNC Greensboro last year and averaged 7.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. With the Eagles, he increased both those marks (to 12.2 and 6.7) and played the third-most minutes on the team.
The true freshman Price – who said he stuck with his commitment because of his trust in Riley – started every game, averaged 10 points and 4.9 rebounds and was named the Big Sky’s Freshman of the Year.
And then there was the sixth man Magnuson, who played 17 minutes per game and was the team’s most consistent bench player – and a key ball handler after Rouse’s injury.
“I got the head coaching job, and all I heard the first two months was, ‘I’m sorry about what happened; I’m sorry you guys lost (so many players),’ ” Riley said, referring to Shantay Legans’ leaving to take the head coaching job at Portland, and the exodus of transfers that followed.
“Those guys did a great job. I love those guys. I love them to death,” Riley said. “But that doesn’t mean we were nothing. We had some guys left over. I was confident in those six guys that came back. I was confident in the staff that we hired. I knew we had the guys coming in who could win games.”
Riley admitted before the season that it might take time to build chemistry among so many players unfamiliar with each other. But he was sure it would happen, and he reiterated that after Thursday’s loss to Northern Colorado.
“We knew we were going to be a team to be reckoned with down the stretch,” he said.
Eastern won seven of its final 10 games, including regular-season victories over Montana State, Weber State and Northern Colorado – three of the top four teams in the standings.
It was a team that continually impressed Riley with its work ethic. At times throughout the season, he would return to the gym at 8 or 9 at night to find multiple players were still there.
Other days he would arrive early, sometimes at 6 a.m., and Magnuson would already be there in a full sweat.
“These guys put so much into it,” Riley said, “and so when they show it on the court like that, that’s where that comes through, with their effort and making plays like that and playing together.”
At this point, it looks as if Eastern will return three starters in Venters, Price and Allegri. Rouse, who earlier this season said “it’s not easy at all” sitting on the bench, is eager to return, possibly to the starting lineup next year.
Mason Landdeck and Casey Jones, the seventh and eighth players in the rotation, are both true freshmen. Many other players who played only minimal minutes are candidates to play more next season. The Eagles could also tap into the transfer portal.
Much of that will be determined in the coming months.
After the loss to Northern Colorado, Riley was complimentary of the Bears, a team with a senior core that played many seasons together, dating back to their AAU days.
“It’s the tournament,” Riley said. “It’s what happens in March. You get these crazy games. Hats off to Northern Colorado.”
But also, Riley said he was grateful to the contributions of the departing grad transfers and that he is optimistic about the trajectory of the team.
“I’m grateful to Boogie (Acliese) and Ry (Bergersen) for everything that they did, and the people they are, and the character that they showed this year and the sacrifices they made,” Riley said. “I’m just excited for the future of this program.”
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