It’s definitely a rivalry now.
Eastern Washington and Idaho barely knew each other on the basketball court until the Vandals rejoined the Big Sky Conference two years ago.
Even worse for the Eagles, they hadn’t beaten Idaho in conference play in 18 tries.
EWU head coach Jim Hayford’s reaction at the time was, “It’s not much of a rivalry.”
Since then, the Eagles have made it one by winning five of the last seven meetings against UI, including a 69-62 victory in Moscow on Dec. 30.
“Our goal is the same as it always has been since Idaho rejoined the Big Sky Conference, and that is to keep up our end of the bargain and make these games a rivalry game,” Hayford said.
Friday night’s rematch at Reese Court is even bigger, as both teams are angling for a high finish with just five games left in the regular season.
Eastern is 17-9 overall and sitting in third place in the conference at 9-4. Idaho is only 13-11 overall but is just one game further back in the Big Sky at 8-5.
The top five teams will earn first-round byes in the postseason tournament, scheduled for Reno, Nevada, on March 7-11. But with league leader Weber State coming to Cheney on Thursday, Hayford still hopes for more.
“With a good homestand we could still possibly fight for the conference championship,” Hayford said.
That won’t be easy against an Idaho club that had won seven of eight before losing at second-place North Dakota on Saturday. Guard Victor Sanders averages 21.1 points a game and is a bona fide triple threat.
“He has a green light – he can shoot it and he can drive it, so you better have an answer for him,” said Hayford, who also must deal with the inside game of UI’s Brayon Blake (10.7 points and 6.7 rebounds) and Nate Sherwood (6.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg.)
The Eagles counter with a dominant frontcourt led by Jacob Wiley, who’s averaging 20.4 points for the season and a league-leading 27.4 in Big Sky play. Already a three-time conference player of the week winner, Wiley also averages 8.6 rebounds.
Forward Bogdan Bliznyuk averages 18.8 points and 8.1 rebounds while also handling most of the ball-handling chores.
While Wiley and Bliznyuk have dominated the stat sheet, Hayford got a boost last weekend when guard Ty Gibson scored a game-high 21 points at Northern Colorado.
It was Gibson’s first start in a Big Sky game.
Eastern and Idaho have the best defensive field-goal percentages in the league after 13 conference games, with Idaho at .416 and Eastern right behind at .428.
“If we’re good in transition, we’ve been a good defensive team,” Hayford said.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.