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Eastern Washington University Basketball

‘It had a storybook ending’: Eastern Washington’s 2003-04 basketball team will return to celebrate school’s first NCAA appearance

By Dave Cook The Spokesman-Review

Cutting down the nets is an age-old tradition that should never be taken for granted.

The coaches and players on the 2003-04 Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team certainly never will – especially after what transpired on their homecourt 20 years ago.

After three consecutive seasons in which they agonizingly watched their opponents cut down the nets to celebrate Big Sky Conference Tournament championships, the Eagles finally got over the hump in 2004, culminating with a victory over Northern Arizona that cemented their first NCAA Tournament appearance.

“It was four years of staying persistent and resilient, and finally kicking the door in,” said the team’s head coach, Ray Giacoletti. “And it wasn’t an easy year – in our nonconference schedule we were a mess. But the team pulled together and we got on a good run. It had a storybook ending.”

Players and coaches will return to share those memories and triumphs with fans when they are honored at halftime of EWU’s season-ending home game on Saturday against Montana State at Reese Court.

Guard Rachi Wortham, who is in his third season as head coach at Tacoma Community College after previously serving as an assistant at EWU and Montana, was on Eastern’s roster that night two decades ago, when a sizable and jubilant EWU crowd rushed Reese Court following a 71-59 victory over NAU in the title game televised by ESPN. It was one of five net-cutting championship nights Wortham has been a part of as a player and coach, but it stands out by far.

“I’ve been lucky to be a part of a lot of championship teams, but the most memorable moment in my basketball career was that night,” he said of the bedlam that included 6-foot-10, 285-pound center Gregg Smith crowd-surfing above his EWU classmates.

In the NCAA Tournament, Smith scored 16 points and grabbed four rebounds in EWU’s 75-46 first-round loss to Oklahoma State, earning him Chevrolet Player of the Game honors. The 15th-seeded Eagles were tied at 36-all against the No. 2 Cowboys, who eventually advanced to the Final Four.

“It was pure bliss and a culmination of it all coming together,” said Alvin Snow, who was inducted into the Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018. “Everybody around us was excited and engaged – there was nothing like it. It didn’t matter whether we won or lost against Oklahoma State, to be honest. We already felt like we did it.”

The 2003-04 Eagles emerged from a rocky preseason to dominate Big Sky play. Eastern lost its conference opener at home to Montana, but went on an 11-game winning streak, clinched the title by mid-February, and had more than two weeks to prepare for hosting the conference tourney.

Snow was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman and concluded his career by becoming the conference’s MVP as a senior in 2004. Through his four years, he remembers most fondly the regular-season title-clinching win.

“We came in second every year to a different team in the regular season and the tournament,” Snow said. “So for me, the highlight was the game we clinched the regular-season championship at home. I remember getting subbed out of the game and I was crying as I hugged coach Giacoletti because we finally did it.

“That was a big relief for me. I knew once we were hosting, we were going to win – there was no way we were going to lose it at home and not go to The Dance.”

The Eagles were in contention for Big Sky titles in each of the previous three seasons under Giacoletti, but couldn’t pull out the regular-season crown. Instead, they went on the road for the Big Sky tourney – in succession at Cal State Northridge, Montana State and Weber State. Eastern lost to CSN, Montana and WSU in those three tourney title games.

By finally winning the regular-season title, the Eagles earned the right to host in 2004.

“When you look back at things, it was the right kind of process, to be honest with you,” Giacoletti said. “The first year was literally a bonus, and finishing second the next two years was the right progression toward winning it all.”

Coming up short fed the team’s hunger, he said. Giacoletti teams were known to be hard-nosed and tough, with many of the players coming from the state of Washington.

“We talk about how cool and close-knit that group was, and it was so organic,” Wortham said of his time in Cheney. “It was really just us in a city where we all had to be together all the time, and coming to practice and games just competing. Every single possession in every practice and game was so important.

“Coach would always say, ‘Control what you can control,’ and I’ll bet you everybody on that team uses that phrase still. I still use it with the teams I’ve coached.”

The Eagles were loaded with talent, and Wortham said they had “phenomenal role players.” Snow and Brendon Merritt joined junior Marc Axton as double-figure scorers from within the state of Washington. But the team had eight players average at least 10 minutes per game, and two more who averaged seven to eight.

“A lot of that team played with or against each other (before EWU),” said Wortham, who shared a common thread with Axton and Khary Nicholas at Foss High School and with sharp-shooting Josh Barnard (Bethel High and a University of Washington transfer) and Nicholas at Tacoma. “There were a lot of players from the state of Washington, and that made it a little more special because we knew each other before.”

Two other Washington players – gritty Danny Pariseau (Shadle Park) and Matt Nelson – were major contributors, and off the bench was Paul Butorac (Medical Lake).

But clearly, the cornerstones were Snow and Merritt, who became the Big Sky Tournament MVP and joined Snow and Axton on the all-tournament team.

“Any team in the Big Sky would have a chance to win with Alvin Snow and Brendon Merritt as the guards,” Wortham said. “When it came down to it, they would make a play on offense and then get a stop on defense. We had a great team and role players, but we were always in a good spot with those two.”

Wortham played sparingly in games, but that wasn’t the role he assumed when he arrived in Cheney along with Carl Howell, who coached Wortham at TCC.

“I came to Eastern because I wanted to be a basketball coach,” Wortham said. “I talked to coach Howell and he talked to coach Giacoletti about getting me here so I could coach and learn.

“I was talking to Paul Butorac about my role, and he said that everything the coaches ever said I echoed right back to the team. That was good to hear – it wasn’t because I wanted to be the coach’s pet, it was just trying to win. It didn’t matter what my role was, I wanted to win and that was where I was at.”

Wortham said he’ll be back in Cheney for the reunion, as will Giacoletti, who is living in Florida, All but one of the players who saw action that season is expected be there.

“All the guys are excited to be a part of this – that’s pretty cool,” Snow said. “What we accomplished together was pretty special at that time. The current state of basketball makes it difficult to keep a group together for any extended period of time anymore.”

And perhaps while they’re there, the 2003-04 Eagles will witness the 2023-24 edition cut down the nets. EWU entered Saturday’s game against second-place Northern Colorado with a one-game lead.

“They’ll get it. (David Riley) is a terrific coach,” Wortham said of EWU’s NCAA Tournament chances. “They are doing a great job with recruiting and they kill it in the portal.”

Based on their own experiences 20 years ago at EWU – and subsequent playing and coaching stops – Snow and Wortham know there is even joy in the struggle.

“In my sporting life, there has never been a better time and the run we had,” said Snow, who went on to play more than a decade professionally. “By the time we finished, Reese Court was packed and they even had to add seating. That run was about all of us just sticking together and making it happen. I can’t tell you how amazing it felt to be a part of building that.”

“It makes you value every single time you get close,” Wortham said. “You build up and build up and build up, then you get one. I was lucky to be a part of a really good team – we had all the pieces.”

“That team was as resilient a group as I’ve ever been,” Giacoletti said. “And it shows in that they’ve all been successful in the last 20 years. That’s because they are tough-minded, focused human beings.”