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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Back-to-back: Eastern Washington beats Montana to clinch second consecutive Big Sky Conference title

Eastern Washington forward Cedric Coward rises for a dunk against Montana forward Blake Jones on Thursday at Reese Court in Cheney.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

After firing off confetti, placing a “Big Sky Champions” sign above the rim like a mantle and trimming the nets nearly all the way off, the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team began the chant: “Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave.”

Celebrating a second league title in three seasons as the Eagles’ head coach, David Riley took the scissors, climbed the ladder and trimmed the last two strands off the rim at Reese Court, a place he has spent countless days over the last 14 years.

“I’m just excited to be a part of this university that has done a lot for me,” said Riley, who began his time at Eastern as a graduate assistant in 2011.

The Eagles did what they set out to do on Thursday by beating Montana 89-79, and they got an assist 10 minutes later when Weber State beat Northern Colorado to give Eastern (19-10, 13-3 Big Sky) the league title outright for the second year in a row.

They accomplished it with a cast of players and coaches who are either new to the program or are filling different roles than they were last season – players like Casey Jones, a sixth-man-turned-starter who scored a career-high 30 and only missed three times all night as the Eagles pounded the Grizzlies (19-10, 10-6) in the paint all game.

“We’re just a bunch of fighters,” Riley said before listing off the players who left after last season. “This program is about more than that.”

This is Eastern’s sixth regular season championship since it joined the league in 1987.

Now the second act of the Eagles’ season is about to begin.

“It’s going to mean something simply because it is back to back,” junior Cedric Coward said after scoring 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting. “It’s really hard to do. But for where we want to go, it’s not going to mean much.”

The shadow of a one-and-done Big Sky Tournament exit last year still hangs over the team, and that is something they are eager to remedy when this year’s event begins on March 9.

“I think that was the problem last year: We thought the job was done,” Jones said. “We ended up not finishing it.”

EWU Athletics / Youtube

They have two regular-season games to go until the tournament: home against Montana State on Saturday, then at Sacramento State on Monday.

But they have plenty to build on from Thursday. They made 53.6% of their shots, including 15 of 26 after halftime when they built their lead to as many as 13 points.

Coward and Jones were the primary catalysts, and Jones was especially efficient. He made 8 of 10 shots and 13 of 14 free throws while grabbing six rebounds and blocking two shots.

Junior Ethan Price – who started his 97th career game for the Eagles, sixth-most in program history – scored 12 points, including 3 of 4 3-point attempts.

And after watching teams give starting point guard Ellis Magnuson two arms’ lengths of space above the 3-point circle the last couple of weeks, the Eagles turned to the senior guard to do what he does best: distribute the ball and play defense. He played 30 minutes, his most in a Big Sky game this year, and had four points, four rebounds, four steals and seven assists.

“Ellis is a difference-maker, straight up,” Coward said. “You can take away his shot, but that’s not what he does best. What he does best is get other people open. What he does best is hound other guys on defense.”

Montana stuck around largely because of senior guard Aanen Moody, who scored 35 points – one shy of his career-high – and made a season-best eight 3-pointers. Only one teammate – Te’Jon Sawyer, who had 10 points – scored in double digits.

“I thought we broke his rhythm a little bit with our zone,” Riley said of Moody, who did not score during the first eight minutes of the second half before heating up again late.

The Eagles secured the No. 1 seed in the Big Sky Tournament and will play the winner of the 9/10 seed game on the second day of the event in Boise.

“We got the first half of what we wanted to get done, done. We got the regular season,” Coward said. “But nothing matters unless you get to March Madness. That’s where the top teams play, and we want to consider ourselves as a top team, so we’ve got to get there.”

Women

Eastern Washington 56, Montana 55: The Eastern Washington women’s basketball team held on late to beat Montana on Thursday in Missoula and remained in first place in the Big Sky with two regular-season games to go.

Senior Jacinta Buckley, playing for the first time since Jan. 25, drained a 3-pointer with 20 seconds to go to give Eastern its final lead. Montana’s Carmen Gfeller missed a shot at the top of the lane at the buzzer.

In 21 minutes off the bench, Buckley scored five points, grabbed nine rebounds and had four steals. Senior Jamie Loera led the Eagles with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Eastern trailed 27-21 at halftime before rallying past Montana (19-8, 11-5) in the third quarter.

The Eagles (24-5, 14-2) lead the Big Sky by one game over Northern Arizona (21-8, 13-3), the only team that can still catch them. Eastern plays at Montana State (15-14, 9-7) on Saturday and at home against Sacramento State (5-22, 4-12) on Monday.