Eastern Washington hits the road with championship hopes
If all goes well, this will be the longest road trip in Eastern Washington basketball history.
It began Thursday, when the Eagles flew south for games this week at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.
A week later, they plan to “make some noise” at the Big Sky Conference tournament in Reno, Nevada, coach Jim Hayford said Tuesday after a practice session at Reese Court that was as upbeat as it gets.
And why not? Eastern is playing as well as anyone in the conference. The Eagles are 20-9 overall and 12-4 in the league play, just a game behind North Dakota, and have a solid shot at their second NCAA Tournament berth in three years.
“We’re playing for a championship,” forward Jacob Wiley said. “However long it takes, we’re prepared to do it.”
First up is a regular-season ending trip to play two teams near the bottom of the conference.
“We respect them both very much,” said Hayford, whose club beat Southern Utah 83-68 and NAU 84-62 in Cheney in January. If they can do it again - and North Dakota drops one of its last two games - the Eagles could claim a share of the regular-season title for the second time in three seasons.
The Thunderbirds are 5-24 overall and have dropped 13 of their last 14 games; they’re also the worst shooting team in the Big Sky, hitting just 41 percent in conference games.
However, the T-Birds have competed well in their last five games, including an 84-68 home win over NAU on Jan. 18. Southern Utah guard Randy Onwuasor averages 23.6 points in conference games to rank fourth.
On Saturday, the Eagles face an NAU squad that took owns recent wins over Montana State and Sacramento State, the latter on the road. The Lumberjacks (8-21 overall, 5-11 in the Big Sky) are the top rebounding team in the conference with a plus-4.4 average in league play.
“The trip to SUU and NAU has our full attention,” Hayford said,. “Both of these teams have strengths, and we’ll have a solid plan to negate them.”
The Eagles figure to do that with the dominating inside play of Wiley and Bogdan Bliznyuk, who average 26.3 and 18.1 points in Big Sky play respectively.
In the last few weeks, Wiley has boosted his resume even further for Player of the Year honors. On Saturday the graduate transfer from Lewis-Clark State led the Eagles with 38 points and 15 rebounds in a Senior Day win over Idaho State.
Wiley not only leads the conference in scoring; he also tops the charts in rebounding (10.2) and field goal shooting (66.7 percent).
Eastern will spend two days in Arizona at the end of the tip before heading to Reno for a quarterfinal game on March 9.