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Sports >  EWU basketball

Top-seeded Eastern Washington sees quick exit in Big Sky Tournament, after Northern Arizona wins on buzzer-beater

March 5, 2023 Updated Sun., March 5, 2023 at 8:47 p.m.

Eastern Washington gathers during a Big Sky Tournament quarterfinals game against Northern Arizona on Sunday in Boise.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
Eastern Washington gathers during a Big Sky Tournament quarterfinals game against Northern Arizona on Sunday in Boise. (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – For 10 weeks this winter, the Eastern Washington Eagles couldn’t lose.

For the last 10 days, there’s been something missing.

Add to that now the one thing which mattered to them the most: an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.

No dancing for the Eagles. Not after Oakland Fort’s cool, crushing 28-foot jump shot at the buzzer sent Northern Arizona to one of the biggest upsets of conference tournament play, an 81-80 stunner over the top-seeded Eagles on Sunday night in the Big Sky Conference’s tournament quarterfinals.

There will be more post-season for Eastern, however. Regular-season conference champions are guaranteed berths in the National Invitation Tournament.

But that’s hardly what the Eagles had in mind in the middle of their 18-game winning streak.

“It doesn’t diminish what we did this season,” said EWU coach David Riley. “But we’re going to feel this one. It hurts.”

The sudden finality only added to the sting.

The ninth-seeded Lumberjacks – losers of 22 games this year – had upset eyes from the start, and actually led for nearly 22 minutes. But Eastern inched in front in the final minutes, and seemed to be in control after a 3-pointer by Steele Venters and Casey Jones’ tough lay-up off a high-low pass – good for a 77-71 lead with 58 seconds to play.

The Eagles even seemed to dodge a disaster when NAU’s Jalen Cone – with a chance to tie the game down three and 11.4 seconds left – missed one of the three foul shots he was awarded for being fouled on a 3-pointer. That forced the Jacks to foul, and they had no choice but to make it Venters – the Sky’s Player of the Year and an 88 percent free throw shooter.

But the second of his two shots rolled off and Cone had eight seconds to work with as he headed down court.

It almost came to a messy end, funneled into a double-team by Venters and Davis, who had a hand on the ball. But Cone pivoted and was able to find Fort well clear of any defense.

Did he know his shot was true?

“Yes, I did,” he said.

The freshman reserve guard – who carries just 4.7 scoring average – had been a hero in NAU’s first-round win over Idaho, with 13 points and three 3s. He banged home three more in this one and a season-high 15 points. In two games at Idaho Central Arena, he’s made two more 3s than he did in all of conference play.

“I haven’t had the best season if you look at the stats,” he said, “but I’ve been consistent with my work every day and it’s coming to fruition at the right time.”

It’s the flip side of that equation the Eagles must ponder.

The two losses to end the regular season were mostly considered a hiccup after they’d already won the Big Sky title. It may go a little deeper.

“Our team didn’t come ready to play as much as we wanted to,” said Venters. “For the last three games, we haven’t been us.”

Riley’s assessment was more direct.

“We didn’t do a good enough job getting our defense where it needs to be at the end of the season,” he said. “That’s what lost this game. We played efficient offense, but I clearly didn’t have a good enough game plan to get stops. And the last three games, that’s what it came down to.”

Indeed, the Eagles shot 57 percent, led by Venters’ 21 points and 13 apiece from Ethan Price and Angelo Allegri. But NAU – just 43 percent shooters on the year – made 49 percent, and hit 7 of 14 from 3 in the second half.

Factor in 10 first-half turnovers and 10 NAU offensive rebounds, and the Eagles severely whittled down their margin for error.

“This is survive and advance,” said NAU coach Shane Burcar, “but last night we didn’t survive – we won that game from the last media timeout on. Tonight we absolutely survived. And we’ll take that.”

And the Eagles will, after some time, take their consolation prize.

“It’s a heartbreaking thing and it’s going to take a few days to shake this thing,” Riley said. “But there’s going to be a lot of joy going into play in the NIT.”

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