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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Eastern Washington must slow down Montana’s efficient offense to clinch Big Sky Conference championship

Eastern Washington’s Ethan Price lofts a shot over Idaho’s Julius Mims during a Big Sky matchup Feb. 10 at Reese Court.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Midway through the first half Saturday against Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington’s hold on first place in the Big Sky Conference standings looked tenuous.

The Eagles were down 12 points to the team that was one game behind them. On the road, no less.

But after that, Eastern exploited its height advantage, with Cedric Coward’s 30 points leading a surge as the Eagles won by nine. Now the Eagles (18-10, 12-3) have a two-game lead and can clinch their second consecutive Big Sky regular-season title with a win Thursday at home against second-place Montana (9-9, 10-5).

“I feel like we’ve been tested in different ways this year,” said David Riley, EWU’s third-year head coach. “Going through a couple losses earlier (in conference play) may have changed our perspective a little bit. Overall, I think we’re in a great spot.”

Eastern is trying to become the first Big Sky men’s basketball team to win back-to-back regular-season titles since Montana did so in 2018 and 2019. The Eagles won conference titles in 2020 and 2023, and in 2021 they won the Big Sky Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

That remains the goal for this year’s Eagles, who would like to avoid a repeat of their quarterfinal exit last year. (The 2020 Big Sky Tournament was canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

But the Eagles are focused for now on the Grizzlies, who bring to Reese Court a three-game winning streak.

“They’re scoring really efficiently,” Riley said of the Grizzlies. “They do a good job playing through their mismatches.”

One such mismatch is senior forward Dischon Thomas, their second-leading scorer (14.3 points per game), leading rebounder (5.6 per game) and also one of their better 3-point shooters (46 of 113 on the season).

Senior guard Aanen Moody ranks fourth in the Big Sky in scoring (15.6 points per game), and eight times this year he has scored at least 20 points. Riley said Moody is “a dynamic guard who can beat you single-handedly.”

Montana’s efficiency manifests itself in a conference-low turnover average (9.8 per game, 3.5 fewer than Eastern’s) and an assist average (15.1) that is second only to Eastern’s (17.4) among Big Sky teams.

On Feb. 3 in Missoula, Eastern beat Montana 78-65 and held Moody to 11 points. Thomas had nine rebounds and 18 points, but he shot 5 of 13 from the field, his third-lowest shooting percentage in 15 Big Sky games.

In the Northern Colorado game Saturday, the Bears employed a defensive strategy that many of Eastern’s recent opponents have tried: Giving senior guard Ellis Magnuson a 6-foot cushion on the perimeter.

After scoring a season-high 11 points against Idaho State on Feb. 15, Magnuson has scored just four points during the team’s last three games. He has made 8 of 30 3-pointers this season while ranking third in the conference in assists (126).

Partially in response to that defensive strategy, Riley frequently employed a bigger lineup against the Bears.

“(It) gives us a different look,” Riley said, “especially now where teams are getting pretty gimmicky guarding us and deciding not to guard guys.”

“Now when we go big, that doesn’t work,” Riley said. “It shakes out the rhythm of the game. Teams think that this Ellis thing is working. We’re still scoring 80 points a game. … The big lineup allows us to mess with teams, because it is hard to switch a defensive game plan in the middle of a game like that.”

If the Eagles lose Thursday, they still have two games left to try to wrap up a Big Sky championship. They are home against Montana State (12-16, 7-8) on Saturday and travel to Sacramento State (7-22, 3-13) on Monday.

“There’s a lot to be said for hanging a banner and winning a championship,” Riley said.