EWU men clinch outright Big Sky championship with 78-69 win over Weber State

Eastern Washington clinches the outright Big Sky regular season with win over Weber State
Eastern Washington clinches the outright Big Sky regular season with win over Weber State

CHENEY, Wash. —The celebration the Eagles enjoyed Saturday (March 7) can only be topped by a potential NCAA Tournament berth in a week.

Using a late run and defense to take the lead for good, the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team beat Weber State 78-69 to win the outright Big Sky Conference title on Senior Day at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. Eastern closes the conference season with a school-record 16 Big Sky wins versus just four losses.

Eastern used a 10-0 run in the second half to break from a 59-all tie against a Weber State team picked by the media to finish second ahead of the Eagles in the league standings. Eastern was picked to win it by the coaches, and proved them right.

“It feels great to watch the guys celebrate, see their smiles and put on championship shirts and hats,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. “It’s exciting to be dancing in the locker room – it’s a good feeling to see those guys happy like that.”

Seniors Mason Peatling and Tyler Kidd played in their final regular season games at Reese Court, and were honored in pre-game ceremonies. Peatling has been on fire during the league season averages of 18.5 points on 56 percent shooting from the field, 10.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.7 blocked shots and 0.8 steals. He is a leading candidate for Big Sky MVP honors to be announced on Tuesday (March 10).

“We did a good job of handling the emotion in the first few minutes – we had some air balls early,” said Legans. “Our team did a good job of changing their mindset at halftime and played some good basketball for stretches in the second half.”

Eastern’s big three of Peatling, junior Jacob Davison and sophomore Kim Aiken Jr. combined for 56 of EWU’s points, including a double-double of 19 points, 13 rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots by Aiken. Davison scored 24 with eight rebounds and five assists, and Peatling had 13 points, five boards, five assists and three steals.

Additionally, junior Jack Perry scored nine points, including a pair of key 3-pointers during EWU’s 10-0 run in the second half. Redshirt freshman Casson Rouse came off the bench to finish with five points, five rebounds and a career-high seven assists, and true freshman Jacob Groves hit a pair big field goals in the last 3:49 to preserve EWU’s lead.

Weber State was at just over 50 percent shooting for the game when it was tied at 59. But after that, Eastern held the Wildcats to 23.5 percent (4-of-17) in the final 11 minutes. Eastern out-shot WSU in the game 44 percent to 43 percent, and out-rebounded the Wildcats 41-38. The Eagles are now 15-0 this season when they win the rebounding battle.

Eastern had already assured itself of its fourth Big Sky regular season title in school history (2000, 2004, 2015), but now joins the 2004 team with the only outright titles. Eastern has gone on to win two Big Sky Tournament titles (2004 and 2015) to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles also have national postseason appearances in the NIT (2003) and the College Basketball Invitational (2016, 2017, 2018).

Eastern’s postseason fate will be determined starting March 12 when Eastern plays in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Tournament in Boise, Idaho. Eastern will play at 11 a.m. Pacific time on Thursday (March 12) in the first of four quarterfinal games. As the regular season champion, Eastern is assured of at least a NIT berth regardless of how they perform at the Big Sky tourney.

Eastern enters the tournament with a season high seven-game winning streak. At 23-8, Eastern has already achieved the school’s second-highest win total in 37 seasons as a member of Division I, with the only seasons better than 20 wins coming in 2014-15 (26) and 2016-17 (22). At 16-4 in the league, Eastern has also achieved the most wins in 33 seasons in the Big Sky, breaking the previous record of 14 set in 2014-15.

Eastern led early 17-10 with a 7-0 run, but then the Eagles went 3 1/2 minutes without a score. Weber State’s 12-0 run gave them a 22-17 lead. But Eastern made seven-straight baskets and turned a three-point deficit into a 35-30 lead. Eastern would eventually lead 40-35 at halftime.

The second half was much of the same, with Eastern leading by no less than two but no more than eight in the first 8 1/2 minutes. Finally, EWU was able to get a double-digit lead with a 10-0 run, including a pair of 3-pointres by Perry and baskets by Rouse and Davison. Eastern hit four-straight shots in that stretch and held WSU without a point for 3:43, as EWU led 69-59 at the 8:51 mark.

A 3-pointer by Aiken with 6:16 remaining helped put a nail in the coffin, as EWU held its largest lead of the night at 11. Baskets by Groves with 3:49 left and 2:44 remaining helped EWU maintain no less than a seven-point lead the rest of the way.

Records . . .

* Eastern is now 23-8 overall and finished 16-4 in the league. With two games left to play Saturday night (Southern Utah at Montana and Sacramento State at Portland State), EWU is in sole possession of first place in the league standings. The Eagles are followed by Northern Colorado (15-5), Montana (14-5), Portland State (11-8), Montana State (10-10), Northern Arizona (10-10), Southern Utah (8-11), Sacramento State (8-11) and Weber State (8-12). Idaho State (4-16) and Idaho (4-16) round out the current standings. The only seeds secured thus far are Nos. 4-6 – Portland State, Montana State and Northern Arizona, respectively.

* Eastern has won 13 of its last 15 games in the league. The Eagles are 10-6 on the road and 13-2 at home this season, including an 8-2 road mark in league games and 8-2 at home. The Eagles have lost twice to league-leading Montana, plus once each to the two bottom teams in the league – Idaho and Idaho State.

* More than two months ago, Eastern opened the league season with a 79-77 road win over Weber State on Dec. 28. Weber State was coming off a 72-64 victory at Idaho, and enters the Big Sky Conference Tournament 8-12 in the league and 12-19 overall.

* Weber State won four of five games between Jan. 25 and Feb. 8 to get them back into the conversation for a top five seed, but now will for sure play on the tournament’s first day – either the No. 7, 8 or 9 seed. Weber State is 8-5 at home and 4-9 on the road this season.

* Senior guard Jerrick Harding scored 16 points against Idaho and 18 against EWU, and he entered Saturday with a 22.0 scoring average to lead the league and rank ninth in NCAA Division I. He was the preseason choice to win league MVP honors this season. He now has a current total of 2,233 career points to rank third in league history behind the 2,272 scored by Jordan Davis of Northern Colorado and the record 2,518 points set by Tyler Hall of Montana State, both from 2016-19. Fellow guard Cody John entered Saturday averaging 14.9 points for Weber State, and he finished with 15 versus EWU.

What’s Next . . .

* The Eagles receive the No. 1 seed for the Big Sky Conference Tournament March 11-14 in Boise, Idaho, and will play in the quarterfinals on Thursday, March 12 at 11 a.m. Pacific time versus the winner of the game between the No. 8 seed and No. 9 seed the previous day. The top five teams receive a bye to the quarterfinal round on Thursday, March 12, while the other six play on Wednesday, March 11, and must win four games to win the title and the automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

More Notes . . .

* Head coach Shantay Legans hid it well, but the emotions of the passing of his mother on March 4 were definitely with him the next day when his squad responded to the news by registering a 100-77 victory over Idaho State. In losing his mother, he also lost his biggest fan throughout a lifetime of basketball. “It’s a tough one for me and my brothers,” said Legans after the 23-point victory. “We had a tough day on Wednesday. The guys really rallied and I appreciate that – I missed the first practice I have ever had. And my mom missed watching – she hasn’t missed one I’ve played or coached in my entire life. We’re 1-0 without her, but I know she’s watching and still talking a lot of trash. She’s one of the toughest ladies I know.”

* The Eagles have won seven of their last 11 games against an opponent EWU was 20-45 against prior to that. Eastern is 27-49 all-time against Weber State, including an 8-30 road record, 17-18 mark at home and 2-1 on neutral courts (3-3 record in the Big Sky Conference Tournament). Earlier this season, EWU triumphed 79-77 in Ogden where EWU has a three-game winning streak and is now 8-30 all-time. At one point in the series, EWU was 0-15 in Ogden before winning there on Jan. 22, 2000. Eastern has played the Wildcats in the Big Sky Tournament on six occasions, including a 3-1 record in semifinal matchups. Eastern won in the 1990 semis in Boise 83-67, won in the 2002 semis in Bozeman 62-57, lost in the 2003 championship game in Ogden 60-57, won in the 2004 semis in Cheney 72-53 and lost in the 2011 quarterfinals in Ogden 79-70.

* Eastern has been in and out of first place in the Big Sky Conference standings all season. But the Eagles were back on top after games played on Feb. 27, including a 57-56 loss by Montana at Northern Arizona. Eastern then took over sole possession of first place on March 5 when the Eagles beat Idaho State and the Grizzlies lost for the second time this season to Northern Colorado.

* Montana is the two-time defending Big Sky Conference champion, and EWU has missed out on NCAA Tournament berths by falling to the Grizzlies in both the 2018 (82-65) and 2019 (68-62) championship games of the league tournament. Both EWU and UM are the preseason picks to win the league title in the 2019-20 season – Eastern by the coaches and Montana by the media.

More Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .

On Senior Day Victory: “I’ve been a part of a lot of these types of Senior Day games, but this was such a big game to be playing for the outright championship. You are already playing for those seniors who gave their blood sweat and tears to the program, and everybody wants to play so hard and so good. They want the game to be perfect.”

On Gut Feeling EWU Would Win: “When you watch it you have a gut feeling, and we were lucky enough to have a player like Mason. Our team re-focused after about eight minutes and Mason kept us moving forward.”