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Eastern Washington travels to fierce rival Idaho for Big Sky opener

Idaho guard Victor Sanders drives to the rim after a steal in the first period against Corban University in the Memorial Gym in Moscow on Feb. 22, 2017. (Tess Fox)
Idaho guard Victor Sanders drives to the rim after a steal in the first period against Corban University in the Memorial Gym in Moscow on Feb. 22, 2017. (Tess Fox)

Even with snow on the roads, this one should be worth the trip.

Friday night’s basketball game at the Cowan Spectrum is not only the opener of the Big Sky Conference for Eastern Washington and Idaho, it’s the continuation of a rivalry that’s been gaining steam since the Vandals joined the league.

Two years ago, NCAA tournament-bound Eastern took a pair of three-point wins in the regular season, then got a 42-point game from Tyler Harvey in the Big Sky quarterfinals to eliminate the Valdans.

Idaho returned the favor last year with a pair of four-point wins, including the quarterfinals in Reno.

“They’ve all been great games with Idaho, win or lose,” said Eastern head coach Jim Hayford said. “They have our utmost respect – coach (Don) Verlin and his staff does a great job and they have a lot of players back. This game is looming large.”

Both teams need a win. The Eagles are 8-5 but coming off three straight losses to Northern Kentucky, Xavier and Colorado.

Idaho is 5-6 and coming off a tough 86-80 loss at Stanford that saw the Vandals lead by six at the intermission.

“For 30 minutes we were as good as we’ve been, which is a real positive for us,” Verlin said.

Eastern enters league play with a winning record for only the fifth time since 1985. The 8-5 start for EWU equals the NCAA tournament team of 2014-15 (9-4) and the 1985-86 team (9-4) as the only teams to start 8-5 or better in 34 years in NCAA Division I.

As a result, of their early success, the Eagles are the top team in the Big Sky with an RPI of 78, with Portland State next at 130th.

The Eagles are getting a strong season from versatile junior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, who’s averaging 20.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists. Graduate transfer Jacob Wiley has made an immediate impact on the boards (7.6 rpg) and is shooting 59 percent from the field.

Idaho is getting 17.2 points and 3.6 assists from guard Victor Sanders but is feeling the absence of senior point guard Perrion Callandret, who’s been out since mid-November with a knee. Callandret is questionable for Friday’s game.

The Vandals will be one of the better defensive teams in the Big Sky, but scoring has been an issue for a team that three times failed to reach 50 points. Idaho entered play Thursday ranked 258th nationally in 3-point accuracy, but made seven of its first eight tries from beyond the arc on the way to a 13-for-27 effort.

Idaho is giving up just 68.8 points a game – second in the Big Sky behind Weber State – and No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense (40.9 percent). However, the Vandals have struggled from beyond the arc, shooting 34.4 percent.

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