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Sports >  EWU basketball

‘I never could dream this’: Eastern Washington continues to make history, riding nation’s best win streak

Feb. 9, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 9, 2023 at 5:21 p.m.

Eastern Washington guard Steele Venters celebrates an Eagles 3-pointer against North Dakota State in the second half on Dec. 3 at Reese Court in Cheney.  (James Snook/For The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern Washington guard Steele Venters celebrates an Eagles 3-pointer against North Dakota State in the second half on Dec. 3 at Reese Court in Cheney. (James Snook/For The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

When Angelo Allegri decided to transfer to Eastern Washington, his primary goal was to win another conference title, something he’d done at UNC Greensboro.

“I knew I wanted to win another championship,” the EWU fifth-year senior said. “I knew I wanted to go dancing again.”

What was not in his dreams? Going on a run quite like the one the Eagles are on .

“That we would be undefeated in conference play, breaking records, making history?” Allegri said. “No, I never could dream this.”

The dream’s not complete, of course. The Eagles, 12-0 in Big Sky play, still have six more conference games to go before the Big Sky Tournament, starting with Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Idaho in Moscow.

But the Eagles are certainly enjoying the ride.

“We always like to say we celebrate (a victory) until midnight, but then we’ve got to flush it,” Allegri said. “It’s a good feeling to be in this position and win so many games, but I really think it’s our maturity and how we’ve been going about it (that has made the difference).”

No Division I men’s basketball team has a longer winning streak than Eastern’s 14, which began with a 79-68 victory over UC Davis on Dec. 17. The next-longest streak belongs to Saint Mary’s of the West Coast Conference, which has victories in its past 12 games (including one over Gonzaga).

Eastern’s streak is also its longest as a D-I program, and it is nearing historic length as far as Big Sky history goes. Montana started the 2012-13 conference season 14-0 before losing its 15th game at Weber State.

The Grizzlies finished 19-1 (the Eagles went 7-13 that year), won the Big Sky Tournament and lost to fourth-seeded Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Eagles (18-7 overall) are four wins shy of tying Weber State’s 1979-80 team for the longest overall winning streak at 18 games.

It’s been 20 years since a Big Sky team went undefeated in conference play, when Weber State went 14-0 in a year when the conference had only eight teams. Weber State’s 15-0 Big Sky record in 1968-69 marks the only other time that a team has gone unbeaten in the conference since its inaugural 1963-64 season.

Yet in the here and now, Eastern still has plenty to do. Montana State is just two games back in the standings at 10-2, including a 70-67 loss to the Eagles on Dec. 31. The Eagles will host the Bobcats on Feb. 27 to close out Big Sky play.

Eagles rely on depth, shooting

One reason for Eastern’s success is surely its depth, which second-year head coach David Riley said is a bit like the depth the Eagles had in 2020-21, when they won the Big Sky and nearly upset Kansas in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round .

“There are some reminders of that team two years ago, when we were bringing guys like Tyler (Robertson) or Jake Groves off the bench,” Riley said. “We had a young Steele Venters coming in deep off the bench.”

Now Venters is leading the charge. Ten points shy of 1,000 for his career, the redshirt sophomore spearheads the team’s 3-point shooting: Since conference play began, no other Big Sky team has made more 3s (106) than the Eagles .

The Eagles are also scoring nearly 10 points per game more than any other Big Sky team. They lead the conference in shooting percentage (53.6%), six percentage points ahead of second-ranked Montana State (47.5%). Their 188 assists in conference games are 27 more than anyone else, and they’ve made 80.8% of their free throws, also the best in the conference.

“It comes down to our chemistry,” Venters said. “We play really well together, and we enjoy playing well together.”

Another reason, Venters said, is that Riley has recruited players who understand the game well. While that can mean it takes teams a bit longer to find their flow – the Eagles started the year 1-5 – once they do find that rhythm, they can play at a high level.

“I just think the way we play, (Riley) gives us a lot of freedom,” Venters said. “Our offense is based on reads and how we’re reading the defense. … He gives us freedom to play, and to play to our strengths, and I think we’ve shown that it works.”

Ray Giacoletti coached the Eagles from 2000 to 2004, and over that stretch his teams went 41-17 in Big Sky games, culminating in a conference title in 2004. Giacoletti left after that season to take the head coaching position at the University of Utah.

Giacoletti and Riley, who played at Whitworth when Giacoletti was an assistant coach at Gonzaga, have texted back and forth several times since Riley has become head coach.

“I remember texting him and saying it wasn’t about nonconference, but it’s about conference and figuring out a way to get his players right for the league season,” Giacoletti said. “Boy oh boy, it’s unbelievable what he’s done.”

This year’s success is more remarkable when considering the mass exodus of players and coaches after EWU advanced to the school’s third NCAA Tournament in 2021. Riley stayed, however, and has rebuilt the program behind a collection of four-year transfers and home-grown talent, including Venters, who is from Ellensburg.

“It’s astonishing to me that at that level they are able to accomplish that through the portal,” Giacoletti said. “I did it for 34 years, and I can’t imagine trying to do that and be successful. Good on him – there are about 350 schools trying to do it the same way.”

An ‘incredible gym rat’

Riley was a star player at Division III Whitworth, which inducted him into its athletics hall of fame in 2022. From 2008 to 2011, Riley averaged 14.6 points per game and finished his career as the fourth-highest scorer in program history with 1,655 points.

His senior year, the Pirates finished 28-2 and reached the Elite Eight of the D-III tournament.

Craig Fortier, an assistant on the Gonzaga women’s basketball staff since 2014, was an assistant for the Pirates while Riley played there.

“He’s a talent. One of the best, maybe the best, shooters I’ve ever coached,” Fortier said this week. “A really creative offensive player, had really great size. Loves the game. Incredible gym rat.”

Fortier’s office was in Graves Gym, and Riley was in there every day, he said.

“I’d hear the ball bouncing all the time,” Fortier said.

Riley had a great feel for the game, Fortier said, and he always wanted to understand the game better.

“He got really great later in his career (at playing) to his strengths,” Fortier said. “A lot of people never learn that in life or in basketball.”

That carried over into Riley’s coaching career, which began in 2011 as an assistant at Eastern. That tendency is reflected in how he recruits players. It’s also perhaps no coincidence that Eagles players talk about how the team – constructed mostly of players who are at least 6-foot-6 – are “mismatch nightmares” for their opponents.

But Riley, now 34, is also quick to focus the team on improving one aspect of its game, on making one good pass, and then another, in sequence. That’s also how he approaches player development.

“I think the biggest thing is focusing on development, and when you do that I think you get better players,” Riley said. “When you get better players, you win more games.

“That’s at the front of our minds in every practice plan and everything we do: How are we developing our guys to be better players?”

Riley said another reason for the success of this team is its lack of ego drive.

“I think everyone on our team is really bought into understanding that everybody’s got to sacrifice something for our team to achieve what they want to achieve,” Riley said. “So, making sure the team comes first is a big piece of it, and I’ve got to show that as well.”

Riley said he tries to do that by admitting when he’s been wrong, telling them why he was wrong and then learning from it.

The Eagles are not done, of course. Even if they finish the Big Sky season 18-0, to secure an NCAA Tournament invite they need to win the conference tournament, something that requires three more wins in Boise in early March.

Last year the Eagles were seeded sixth, and in the old format that meant they had to win four games in a row. They only won one.

“We had a very good team last year,” Venters said. “We weren’t as deep as this year, but we got some huge wins. … I think this year it’s been about consistency and defending well for 40 minutes. I still don’t think we’ve played a great game for 40 minutes yet this year.

“I think it’s all about being consistent and getting better.”

Spokesman-Review correspondent Dave Cook contributed to this story.

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