Fourth-seeded Eastern Washington women open Big Sky tournament against fifth-seeded Montana
March 5, 2023 Updated Sun., March 5, 2023 at 7:09 p.m.
Four teams have already been eliminated from the Big Sky women’s basketball tournament.
Eastern Washington, though, is just getting started.
Seeded fourth in the restructured bracket this year, the Eagles (18-10, 11-7 Big Sky) open tournament play on the event’s third day with an 11 a.m. game against No. 5 Montana (14-15, 10-8) at Idaho Central Arena in Boise.
To win this tournament and earn the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the Eagles must win three games in three days.
“We feel good. We’re ready for the tournament,” EWU coach Joddie Gleason said earlier this week. “We’ve beaten everybody in our conference at least once, and we know what to expect.”
It’s been a long time since Eastern last played Montana. They opened the conference season against each other in Cheney, a game the Grizzlies won 81-70. Eighteen days later, on Jan. 16, the Eagles won convincingly, 87-60, in Missoula.
The Grizzlies have lost four of their last six, but one of those defeats came in overtime, and the other three came by a combined 10 points. Senior forward Carmen Gfeller averages 13.6 points per game to lead the Grizzlies and rank ninth in the Big Sky. Sophomore forward Dani Bartsch is the fourth-leading rebounder in the league at 7.9 per game.
The Eagles are riding a four-game winning streak that included three wins in five days at the end of February, including a 78-65 victory over Montana State that dropped the Bobcats into the second seed in the tournament.
“Our growth has been tremendous,” Gleason said.
She pointed to the benefits of playing a difficult nonconference schedule that included two Pac-12 programs, two from the Mountain West and a Southern Utah team – which the Eagles beat – that finished 16-2 in the Western Athletic Conference.
“We feel like we’ve really prepared ourselves well,” Gleason said, “and after running the gamut of the Big Sky … we’ve got a feel for what it takes to win, and our players have done a great job understanding what needs to happen night in and night out.”
The Eagles have played without leading scorer Jaydia Martin since Jan. 28, a span of eight games. There was an adjustment period playing without the injured sophomore – and also without junior Jacinta Buckley, who has since returned after missing four games due to injury. This week Martin – along with senior guard Jamie Loera, the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year – was named to the all-conference third team. Buckley was an honorable mention.
But in Martin’s absence, and over the stretch without Buckley, Gleason said players have stepped up. Sophomore Jaleesa Lawrence, for example, has averaged 5 rebounds and 11.6 points over the last eight games while also playing great defense, Gleason said.
Gleason, now in her second year as Eastern’s head coach, has already led the team to twice as many wins as it had last year, when it lost in the first round of the league tournament 64-45 to Northern Colorado. The team’s fourth-place regular-season finish this year is their best since finishing third in 2017-18.
Eastern is looking for its first Big Sky Tournament win since 2019, when it won three games as a No. 6 seed, losing 61-59 to Portland State in the title game.
The Eagles have won the Big Sky Tournament once, in 1987, with a 16-27 overall record. They haven’t played Montana in it since 2015, when the Grizzlies won their semifinal matchup 55-51.
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