Men’s Basketball Postseason Survives With Second NIT Invitation Ever

By Luke Pickett, Reporter

The Eagles remarkable 22-win-season quickly became overshadowed after the team dropped the last three games of the year, including an 81-80 defeat at the hands of NAU in the second round of the Big Sky tournament. 

Eastern Washington men’s basketball received an early postseason exit in Boise following a heartbreaking 30-foot buzzer-beating game winner by Northern Arizona’s Oakland Fort.

The last-second miraculous shot came at the end of an unbelievable effort from the ninth-seeded NAU Lumberjacks. The Lumberjacks shot 49 percent from the field in a game that was never out of their reach.

NAU had five players scoring in double-figures, including Fort, the Freshman guard who sank the deciding basket. 

Fort’s career-high 15 points led all bench scorers in the contest.

The Eagles were able to restrict the Big Sky’s fifth-leading scorer Jalen Cone to just 11 points. Still, NAU shot 28 shots from behind the arc, making ten to Eastern’s nine, as the Lumberjacks’ talented backcourt guards created problems for the Eagles defense all night. 

Nik Mains and Xavier Fuller led the way for NAU, scoring 16 points apiece. 

NAU advanced to the semifinal game against the fourth-seeded Montana Grizzlies, winning that one 83-71. They eventually fell short of their magical postseason dreams, losing in the Big Sky championship game to the second-seeded Montana State Bobcats 85-78. 

Though NAU shocked the world with their three-game postseason streak, there are multiple other reasons why Eastern crumbled.

What happened?

The Eagles came into the Big Sky tournament with a first-round bye after winning the regular season Big Sky title. 

In hindsight, that accomplishment could have been a negative thing for the Eagles, who came into the tournament off a two-game skid to end the regular season.

Eastern started the game against NAU with an 18-5 run. They had the game’s highest lead of eight with 11 minutes left in the first half. There were 14 lead changes and eight ties throughout the night. 

The first half concluded in a 35-35 draw. Had it not been for Eastern’s 10 first half turnovers, that might not have been the case. 

The Eagles had struggled taking care of the ball all season long. Despite being the top Big Sky team in scoring, the Eagles offense staggered all season due to a lack of consistency. 

If there is any statistical category that cited the reason for the Eagles late-game conundrums, it’s free throws. The Eags shot just 13-20 from the line in the loss to NAU.

With a 72-71 lead in the final two minutes, Venters scored three of his game-high 21 points with a big shot from deep. An NAU miss on the other end led to Ethan Price finding Casey Jones, who laid the ball to give Eastern a six point edge with 58 seconds remaining.

At that point, it seemed nearly impossible for the Eagles to lose. 

However, to the Lumberjack’s credit, the Eagles were not able to stop them from that moment on. Jalen Cone drove to the lane for a quick two, bringing the lead down to four with 42 seconds left.

NAU chose to foul, sending Tyreese Davis to the free throw line with 37 seconds on the clock. He missed both shots.

 The Lumberjacks then quickly got down the floor where Trent McLaughlin scored his first and only three points of the night.

Following a timeout, Eastern executed an inbounds play, breaking the NAU press for an easy dunk by Cedric Coward to put the Eagles back up by three. 

The problem was that there were still 21 seconds left.

NAU came out of their timeout and executed a play designed for Cone. He got fouled on the stepback shot by Coward, giving the Lumberjacks a chance to tie the game. 

Cone missed the first, but made the following two. 

Steele Venters was then sent to the line after being fouled during the inbounds play with eight seconds left. Venters, an 85.7 percent foul shooter on the year, made the first and missed the second.

For NAU, the rest is history.

The swagger that EWU had when they won their 18th-straight, cruising to a regular season title, was gone in a split second. 

The Eagles seemingly failed to regain confidence after dropping their first conference game to Idaho State, carrying the weight of two straight defeats to a hungry NAU team.

The Lumberjacks, like the conference they are a part of, are incredibly good at basketball. They managed to get one game away from an NCAA tournament berth despite losing 14 games in the regular season by five points or less. 

And yet, the Eagles can only look in the mirror. 

When you’re up six with less than a minute to go, missing three free throws, and fouling the other team on a three-point attempt will certainly not help your chances of success. 

Eastern gets another postseason opportunity Tuesday after being invited to the National Invitation Tournament. The Eagles will play the Washington State Cougars in Pullman for the opening round of the NIT. 

This will be the second time that Eastern has appeared in the NIT. The first appearance came in a 78-71 loss to Wyoming in 2003. Tuesday’s game will be the first time that the two schools will meet in the postseason. Eastern has only ever beaten WSU twice.

The Cougars lost in the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 conference tournament. 

The two teams met on Nov. 21 at the Spokane Arena, where WSU beat down the Eagles 82-56. Eastern head coach David Riley cited the loss earlier in the season as one of the sparks that led to the Eagles historic winning streak. 

The Eagles (22-10) get a shot at redemption against the Cougars (17-16) at 11 p.m. on March 14.