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Eastern faces crucial games in hunt for postseason

Montana, with Brian Qvale, is the second hurdle during Eastern’s important basketball weekend. (Associated Press)
Montana, with Brian Qvale, is the second hurdle during Eastern’s important basketball weekend. (Associated Press)

With just three regular-season games remaining, Eastern Washington is quickly running out of opportunities to beef up its chances of making the six-team Big Sky Conference tournament.

That’s why Eagles coach Kirk Earlywine has labeled today’s 7 p.m. Reese Court contest against Big Sky rival Montana State a “monster” game.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever played a bigger one since I’ve been here,” said Earlywine, whose Eagles are tied with MSU for fifth place in the BSC standings with a 5-8 conference record. “Our players all know the situation. They know we’ve still have a lot of work to do just to make the tournament.

“And Montana State’s guys know it, too.”

Eastern, which has won only one of its last four conference games, and the Bobcats, who have lost seven straight in the conference and nine in a row overall, still have a chance to finish fourth and secure a first-round home game in the BSC quarterfinals. But to do so, they would have to win out and hope fourth-place Northern Arizona (7-6) stumbles during its stretch run.

The chance of EWU doing that seems remote, considering its other two games are against conference-leading Montana (11-3) and third-place Weber State (9-4).

“Sure, we still have a chance to host a game, but the only way to do is to win our last three games,” Earlywine said. “And we can’t win three until we win one.”

With so much riding on tonight’s game, the Eagles are walking a fine line as they try to qualify for the postseason for the first time in five years..

“We’re looking at it as a one-game season right now,” Earlywine said. “But, at the same time, it’s obviously not a win-or-go-home situation.”

Eastern could lose all three of its remaining games and still make the tournament field – provided both Sacramento State and Idaho State, who are tied for seventh at 4-9, do the same.

But the Eagles don’t want to end their postseason drought by backing in.

“We’ve got to win this,” junior forward Laron Griffin said of tonight’s game. “We do, and we don’t have to look back over our shoulders as much. Last year, we lost some close games early, and were trying to come from behind.

“This year, we won a couple of those close games to put ourselves in a much better position – but we still need to take care of business.”

Even though no one on Earlywine’s roster has been in the program more than two seasons, the disappointment of not making the Big Sky tournament last winter remains fresh in his young players’ minds.

“It was bitter,” sophomore point guard Glen Dean said, when asked about last year’s 5-11 Big Sky finish that left the Eagles in seventh place – two games behind sixth-place Portland State, which is not eligible for postseason play this year. “That was the first time most of us didn’t make it to at least some kind of postseason play, and that’s why we’re using that experience to help us get where we want to go this year.

“We’re ready to show ourselves, our coaches and our school that we can make that next step. But to do that, we’ve got to win.”

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