If Eastern Washington can end its regular season with a home sweep of two of the Big Sky Conference’s bottom-tier teams, the Eagles will have clinched at least a share of the conference crown.
With a little help, a split could even do the trick for EWU (21-8, 14-4), but that’s the furthest thing from third-year coach Shantay Legans’ mind before Thursday’s home game with last-place Idaho State (7-20, 4-14).
“We have to go 1-0 on Thursday, and that’s all we’ll worry about,” Legans said. “We can’t worry about any game past that or what other teams do. We’ll handle our own business and do what we are supposed to do. We have to come prepared, because anybody can beat you.”
Now the final lap of the Big Sky race begins, and its three horses are well ahead of the pack.
EWU and Montana are tied atop the conference standings heading into their final two games, the Eagles wrapping up their regular season in Cheney on Saturday against Weber State (11-18, 7-11).
Montana ends its regular season at home this week, facing third-place Northern Colorado (20-9, 13-5) on Thursday in a key game and Southern Utah (15-14, 8-10) on Saturday. Northern Colorado, which is a game back of the Eagles and Grizzlies in the standings, is still in title contention.
If EWU beats Idaho State and Northern Colorado beats Montana in Missoula, the Eagles will have clinched at least a share of the title, the fourth in program history.
EWU, Montana and Northern Colorado have all secured top-three seeds and a first-round bye in next week’s Big Sky Conference Tournament in Boise.
If Montana and EWU finish the season with identical conference records, the Grizzlies will earn the league’s No. 1 seed because they swept EWU during the regular season.
If EWU and Northern Colorado finish tied at the top, the No. 1 seed goes to EWU, which swept the Bears. In the event of a three-way tie, the league will defer to head-to-head record among the three tied teams to determine seeding.
But looking that far ahead could spoil the Eagles’ potential celebration.
“Idaho State and Idaho beat us, and they are great teams,” Legans said. “But at the same time, we have to be prepared and play every game like we did in the second half versus Northern Colorado and the full 40 minutes against Southern Utah. We have to keep playing like we are with Mason (Peatling) as our senior leader.”
Idaho State, led by first-year head coach and Central Valley graduate Ryan Looney, ended its 12-game losing skid on Monday when the Bengals beat Weber State 78-70 on the road.
Idaho State started out 3-1 in Big Sky before going nearly two months without a win. Looney and former associate head coach Jared Phay reportedly clashed during the losing skid, resulting in Phay’s mutual departure from the team three weeks ago.
Phay, a Post Falls native, was previously the head coach at North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho before joining Looney’s staff at ISU last spring.
Idaho State is led by junior college transfer guard Tarik Cool (12.7 ppg) and forward Chier Maker 11.4 ppg).
Weber State, which fell to EWU 79-77 in Ogden, Utah, in December, has battled injuries most of the season but features one of the league’s most exciting players in high-scoring guard Jerrick Harding.
Harding, the preseason league MVP, ranks ninth in the country in scoring (22.4) and first in the Big Sky.
The high-scoring Eagles (87.7 ppg), who’ve won 12 of their previous 14 games, are led by their big three – guard Jacob Davison (18.1 ppg) and forwards Peatling (17.4 ppg) and Kim Aiken Jr. (13.7 ppg).
Peatling earned the most recent Big Sky Player of the Week honor, the fourth time the Australian has been given the distinction by the league this season.
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