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Eastern Washington University Basketball

More bang for the buckets: Tonight’s your last chance to catch the silky-shooting, rim-rattling, blue-collar Eastern Washington Eagles in person, but let’s keep that between us

By Jess Walter For The Spokesman-Review

It was not long after another acrobatic alley-oop dunk – Eastern Washington’s highlight machine Deon Stroud might’ve still been hanging from the rim – that my friend turned to me and said, “This is the best deal in college basketball.”

He would know. A former college player, he’s a regular at Gonzaga University home games, the gold standard of college basketball in the West. I love treating GU fans to the EWU Sixth Man Club: courtside seats, free food and drink, an assistant coach talking strategy before tipoff – none of it requiring a second mortgage.

Invariably, upon seeing Eastern’s high-flying, record-setting basketball team for the first time, the dazed GU fan will lean over and ask some version of the same question: “How much does this all cost?” (Because my brother Ralph and I are overly protective of our favorite team, we usually have them killed at this point, their last words still ringing in the air: “Wait, how much?”)

I begin this EWU Basketball Primer with cost not because it is the most important thing (although, come on, who are we kidding, this is Spokane), but because you don’t need to be down in the Jack Nicholson seats to appreciate the sublime basketball bargain that is EWU hoops.

Tonight is your last chance to see one of the hottest team in hoops at home when EWU (winners of eighteen in a row before losing an afterthought game at Idaho State on Saturday) hosts the second-place team in the Big Sky Conference, the Montana State Displaced-By-Yellowstone-Wannabes-Buying-Overpriced-Real-Estate Bobcats.

Red Reese Court in Cheney will be rocking, the student section swaying, and if you want to catch the most entertaining team in the 509, it’ll cost you all of … 10 or 12 bucks. Closer to the floor: $14 or $16. (Season tickets start at $100 and go all the way up the Sixth Man Club, which is a reasonable … wait, if I tell you, I might have to kill you.)

It would be a bargain at twice the price. These Eagles are big, deep and refreshingly unselfish. They start five skilled guys 6-6 or bigger, yet don’t have a single player among the top 10 scorers in the Big Sky.

Sweet-stroking Steele Venters is a threat from the parking lot; British center Ethan Price can score inside or out (and once met the queen!); the Kansas City Barbecue backcourt of Angelo Allegri and Tyreese Davis can pop, post or penetrate; and there are not one, but two crowd-pleasing spark plugs: springy do-everything Cedric Coward, and Casey Jones, the rec-spec wearing Clark Kent of Cheney.

Throw in high-flying Stroud (still on the rim) big-hair-big-man Dane Erikstrup (an actual Dane) and point-linebacker Ellis Magnuson, and you can see why EWU has lost only one game since early December. (Insider tip: get there early for Imhotep George’s pregame dunk show and QB Jordan Veening’s football-finale alley-oop.)

Eastern locked up the Big Sky regular season title a week ago – its third in nine years – but the Eags still need to win the league tournament in Boise next month to qualify for the NCAA tournament (an NIT bid is guaranteed).

Three times in 20 years, the Eagles have made it to the Big Dance. They first went in 2003, when Ralph and I wrote about EWU for this newspaper, following the team to a first-round game in Kansas City – by way of Las Vegas, where, due to reporter’s error and a misunderstanding of the rules of craps, we missed three straight connections and barely made it to the game.

EWU’s last NCAA trip was just two years ago. Fourteen-seed Eastern led 3-seed blue-blood Kansas well into the second half, when, in a moment of profound empathy, the Eags realized those poor, overhyped Jayhawks would have to go back to Kansas if they lost, and generously bowed, 93-84.

Most of the stars from that team, as well as its great coach, Shantay Legans, used the Googling-EWU exposure to move on to smaller roles on bigger (though not always better) teams – Portland, Oklahoma, Arizona – but longtime genius assistant David Riley took over and hasn’t missed a beat, going 18-16 last year, and this year, blending newcomers and returnees into a sparkling 22-win season and the longest win streak in Big Sky history.

It’s hard to remember this far back, but before Gonzaga fans lost all perspective and expected to win every game, the Bulldogs built a national reputation as a Goliath-punching David, a small-conference nothing-to-lose school that would play anyone anywhere. Today, there is nothing quite like Gonzaga hoops.

But if, like me, you miss rooting for underdogs, may I suggest EWU, a one-time commuter college that educates more first-generation college students (also like me) than any university in the state. Operating with one of the smallest budgets in the Big Sky, in a league where NIL stands for Not In your Lifetime, EWU has managed to win with gems overlooked by bigger programs, guys who share the ball and a fierce desire to win. They’re smart, too –boasting at least a 3.2 grade-point average for an incredible 10 straight years. Last year, EWU was one of only two D-I teams in Washington (Seattle University was the other) to achieve that honor.

But look, you came here for basketball and I’m droning on about things like grades and cost and overachievement. Forget all that stuff. Come to Cheney for the dunks and dimes and deep 3s, for some of the best basketball in the state.

You can even sign up for the Sixth Man Club and join my brother and me next year courtside. But, please, don’t make it all crowded and expensive and weird by bringing any of those Zaggy-come-lately fans who go to games mainly to be seen.

Nobody wants that kind of trouble.

Jess Walter is the author, most recently, of The Angel of Rome and Other Stories.