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Eastern Washington’s run to 2004 NCAA Tournament ‘set the bar for the program’

UPDATED: Fri., March 8, 2019

Former Eastern Washington coach Ray Giacoletti, now a St. Louis-based college basketball analyst, offered a local angle regarding the recent end to Kansas’ 14-year reign of the Big 12 Conference.

Oklahoma State was the last team to dethrone the Jayhawks in 2004, a year in which Eddie Sutton’s talent-stocked Cowboys advanced to the Final Four.

Their first-round opponent: Eastern Washington, a program Giacoletti led to its first NCAA Tournament that season.

“I can’t believe that was 15 years ago,” said Giacoletti, whose 15th-seeded Eagles forced a halftime tie with the No. 2-seeded Cowboys before falling 75-56.

“We had an interesting group of guys. We coached them hard. They were fighters and they wanted to prove people wrong.”

Since then, EWU has returned to the Big Dance once (2015). It came close a year ago, falling to rival Montana in the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship.

This year’s edition of the Eagles (13-17, 11-8 Big Sky) – an up-and-down club that’s beaten the Big Sky’s best and lost to its worst – hopes it’s next to break through. It secured a top-five seed and first-round bye in next week’s conference tournament in Boise but has yet to learn to its seed number or Thursday opponent.

EWU head coach Shantay Legans was a senior guard at Fresno State when EWU first saw its emblem flash across the screen on Selection Sunday.

His wide-open, guard-oriented offense contrasts the defensive-minded, halfcourt-operating squads of Giacoletti, who replaced Rick Majerus at Utah in 2004 just days after the Eagles’ NCAA Tournament exit.

Giacoletti’s four-year body of work in Cheney: Four Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game appearances, an NIT appearance (2003), a Big Sky regular-season title (2004) and NCAA Tournament berth.

The Eagles also upset No. 10 St. Joseph’s on the road in 2002.

“We saw what Gonzaga was doing in their earlier good years, and thought we could do some similar things,” Giacoletti said. “We had some battles with them.”

Alvin Snow – EWU’s first Division I All-American – enjoyed all four of those years.

The three-time All-Big Sky Conference selection, 2004 Big Sky MVP and 2002 Big Sky Defensive MVP was a hard-nosed talent and the cornerstone to the Eagles’ early 2000s success.

Snow, now a professional basketball agent in Seattle, remembers the 2004 team vividly.

“We had a really awful start, but we figured it out once we got to the conference season,” said Snow, a Seattle native. “We banded together and got it done.

“And when we finally broke through the fourth time and won the tournament, I broke down and cried right there on Reese Court. I can’t even describe what kind of feeling that was.”

EWU was the preseason Big Sky favorite, coming off a 2002-2003 season in which the Eagles qualified for the NIT thanks to nonconference wins against Washington, San Diego State, Boise State and Saint Mary’s.

The Eagles also took a Blake Stepp-led Gonzaga team down the wire in the old Kennel but fell 67-64 after Stepp hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds.

“When was the last time a runner-up team from the Big Sky got invited to the NIT? I’m not sure that’s happened since,” Snow said.

When the Eagles returned the bulk of their talent from the 2003 team that fell in its third straight conference tournament title game, the pressure began to mount for EWU.

Giacoletti admits he often consulted with sports psychologist Dr. Jon Hammermeister that season.

EWU delivered, though.

The Eagles won the Big Sky regular-season title outright, earning the right host to the tournament in Cheney.

ESPN was in town. Reese Court was packed with fans and students from throughout the conference and the Spokane area.

Brendon Merritt – a fiery guard from Tacoma Community College — saved his best for his final stretch.

After the Eagles took down rival Weber State 72-53 in the semifinals, Merritt scored a team-high 22 points and was 4 for 4 from 3-point range in a 71-59 win over Northern Arizona in the title game.

Merritt added 14 points against Oklahoma State.

“I was hard-nosed; Brendon and Alvin were hard-nosed. I don’t know if you can be that way with players today,” Giacoletti said.

“It’s probably why I’m out of coaching. I wanted tough guys, and I had them at Eastern.”

Snow said during the Eagles’ poor start in nonconference play that Merritt and Giacoletti nearly came to blows, a situation that was later resolved when the two men hugged.

From there, Snow said, the Eagles rolled in Big Sky play.

The Eagles’ also relied on a trusty forward, three-time All-Big Sky forward Marc Axton, who offered his coach a calming presence, Giacoletti said.

The honor roll student from Federal Way, Washington, was key in the Eagles’ Princeton-style offense because of his ability to find open cutters.

“We loved to move the ball to the end of the shot clock, and keep teams to 32 or less in a half,” said Axton, a Spokane resident.

“We were definitely a unique team in that we had a lot of different personalities that all worked hard for that common goal.”

From local products including guard Danny Pariseau (Shadle Park) and 6-foot-10 center Paul Butorac (Medical Lake), to the Seattle area’s Josh Barnard and Matt Nelson, there was a healthy mix of big city and little city personalities.

Gregg Smith – a 6-10, 285-pound center who had a mullet his sophomore year – brought a rural style from little Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Smith would often drive his “old 1960-something” truck in the woods on team’s day off, Snow said.

Now the head boys basketball coach at Cheney High, Smith was also the unlikely hero in EWU’s loss to Oklahoma State.

He averaged 2.6 points off the bench going into the game but scored 12 first-half points to help EWU knot the game at 36 at halftime.

Smith was 2 inches taller and about 50 pounds heavier than the Cowboys’ biggest starter.

“(Oklahoma State) knew that our guards were the key to our success and focused on them,” said Smith, who transferred to EWU from North Dakota State along with Giacoletti in 2000. “So it was cool to go out that way. It was neat to challenge them.”

Snow said that when the game in Kansas City started to get close, the crowd turned on the John Lucas-led Cowboys and began rooting for underdog EWU.

“It was short-lived, though,” Snow said. “Oklahoma State turned it on in the second half.”

Giacoletti, whose last coaching stop was at Drake before resigning in 2016, caught up with Snow and other members of the 2004 team when Snow was inducted into the EWU Athletics Hall of Fame in September.

They shared stories, they said, and laughed when discussing their old disputes.

Giacoletti, who covers the Missouri Valley Conference, hopes there can be a reunion of the 2004 team.

“I never had a chance to put closure to that season,” the 56-year-old said. “I was immediately back on a plane to Salt Lake (to accept the Utah job) when it ended. I hope that we can all get together in the future because that was a special group.”

Snow agreed.

“It was a great thing for little ol’ Eastern Washington,” Snow said. “It set the bar for the program.”

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