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A Ticket to the Game

EWU Begins their journey through the Big Sky Tournament with their hopes of reaching March Madness on the line

Brad Brown

Brad Brown

By Brandon Cline, Sports Editor

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Five months, 31 games and 1,290 minutes of playing time later, the EWU men’s basketball team have finally arrived in Reno, Nevada for the Big Sky Conference Tournament.

They arrive holding the tournament’s second seed after coaches and media alike expected the Eagles to finish in the middle of the pack during the regular season in the conference. The Eagles were selected to finish seventh in the Big Sky coaches poll and fifth in the Big Sky media poll. The Easterner’s preseason rankings had the Eagles finishing in sixth place.

The emergence of senior transfer Jake Wiley and the steady play of junior Bogdan Bliznyuk thrusted the Eagles into contention for the regular season title, and the Eagles would have clinched a share of the title if they had defeated the 6-12 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks in their regular season finale.

Wiley has been a revelation for an EWU program that was desperately looking for someone to replace forward Venky Jois, who graduated last season. Jois ended his career as the program’s all-time leading scorer and shot blocker.

Wiley has slipped comfortably into Jois’ shoes, winning the conference’s Most Valuable Player award. In 18 conference games, Wiley led the Big Sky in scoring (24.6 points per game), rebounding (10.3 rebounds per game), blocked shots (2.5 blocks per game) and field goal percentage (66 percent field goal shooting).

“He is a tremendous worker and very deserving of this recognition,” said head coach Jim Hayford. “As a staff, this is our first conference MVP in the six years we’ve been a part of this program, and I am really proud of the work done by our assistant coaches with Jake.”

Wiley was a unanimous All-Conference first team selection, while Bliznyuk was selected to the All-Conference second team after finishing seventh in the conference in scoring (19.4 points per game), twelfth in rebounding (6.6 rebounds per game) and sixth in assists (3.7 assists per game).

The Eagles enter the tournament second in the conference in scoring offense (81.2 points per game) and third in scoring defense (73.8 points per game), the only team in the top three in both categories. EWU was the only Big Sky team to shoot higher than 50 percent from the field and were second in the conference in three-point shooting, making 40.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.

The Eagles open their tournament against the Sacramento State Hornets, who are seeded seventh in the tournament. EWU and Sacramento State met just once during the regular season, with the Eagles winning 77-72 at Reese Court. Wiley finished with 38 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three assists in the game, while the rest of the EWU team shot just 34.3 percent (12-35 shooting) from the field.

After the game, Hayford attributed the Eagles’ slow offense start to the team coming out flat, and noted that the team’s defense kept them from trailing by even more at halftime.

“We were playing some really good defense and kind of fought our way through that first half,” said Hayford. “It was like we were moving in mud.”

The Eagles will need to avoid a flat start on Thursday if they want to advance to their second NCAA Tournament appearance in the past three seasons. You can watch their quarterfinal game against Sacramento State on WatchBigSky.com and listen on 700-AM ESPN. The game is currently scheduled to start at 5:35 p.m.

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The independent, student-run news site of Eastern Washington University.
A Ticket to the Game