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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Eastern Washington can clinch Big Sky regular-season titlle with win over Northern Colorado Saturday

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Heading into this year, David Riley’s first goal for the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team wasn’t to win a Big Sky regular-season championship.

That, he said, would be a byproduct of something less measurable but, in his estimation, more important.

“Our first goal was to be the most cohesive team in the country,” the Eagles’ second-year head coach said after Thursday’s 72-55 win over Northern Arizona. “Because that should come first before winning. That will lead to a Big Sky championship, (which was) our second goal.

“We’re excited about that being a possibility.”

With a 14-0 conference record and a three-game lead over second-place Montana State, Eastern Washington needs one win to claim a share of the conference’s regular-season crown.

Two more wins would secure it outright.

While the Eagles (20-7 overall) have aspirations beyond simply winning their conference, they are very much in the one-game-at-a-time mode, something Riley has preached throughout the team’s Division I-best 16-game active winning streak.

“We’re just trying to get better right now,” Riley said.

Eastern’s opponent on Saturday is Northern Colorado (10-17, 5-10), which is coming off an 84-82 loss to Idaho (10-17, 4-10) on Thursday in a game played in Lewiston due to a power outage in Moscow.

That loss ended a three-game winning streak for the Bears, who last season eliminated the Eagles from the Big Sky Tournament and lost in the championship game to Montana State.

This year’s Bears have had less of an issue scoring points (73.1 points per game in conference play) as they have had defending opponents (74.3 ppg allowed). They are also the worst free-throw shooting team in the conference at 68.6% (Eastern is its best at 78.2%) and have committed the second-most turnovers at 175, four fewer than the Eagles (179) in one more conference game than EWU.

But one thing the Bears have done well is defend 3-pointers (31.3%); Eastern ranks second in the Big Sky in 3-point shooting at 37.1%.

After Saturday’s game against Northern Colorado, the Eagles close out with games at Weber State (on Thursday), at Idaho State (Feb. 25) and home against Montana State on Feb. 27.

The Eagles are one victory shy of matching the conference’s best start to conference play at 15-0, a mark set by Weber State in 1968-69. That season and Weber State’s 14-0 showing in 2002-03 are the only two times in Big Sky history that a team has finished regular-season conference play unbeaten.

The Big Sky men’s basketball team to win the most regular-season games was the 2012-13 Montana Grizzlies squad that went 19-1 in what was then an 11-team conference. Weber State went 18-2 that season.

The Big Sky Tournament begins March 4 in Boise, with opening-round games between the bottom-four seeds in the 10-team bracket.