Thursday, March 23, 2023

WSU, EWU match up in NIT

Sports Reporter | March 13, 2023 4:56 PM

PULLMAN — After both teams finished the regular season with winning records, the Eastern Washington Eagles and the Washington State Cougars will face off in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament on Tuesday.

“(The Eagles) are a different team,” WSU Head Coach Kyle Smith said. “I could see it coming a little bit; I’m just glad we caught them when we did there. They were still playing eight, nine guys, still trying to figure out who their rotation was … Our styles are not that different, where we play this year, and the more they play together the more continuity is there. They’re a really smart, really good offensive team.”

The Eagles (22-10) finished the regular season as champions of the Big Sky Conference but were upset by Northern Arizona in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament last week. At one point this season, Eastern had won 18 straight games from Dec. 17 through Feb. 23 and held the nation’s longest winning streak in Division 1 basketball this year.

To close out the regular season, Eastern suffered back-to-back losses to Idaho State and Montana State before their loss to the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks in the Big Sky Tournament.

As for WSU, the Cougars found themselves with a 10-15 record at the beginning of February after suffering a 24-point loss to No. 9 UCLA on Feb. 4. After the loss, WSU won its final six games of the regular season with wins over Washington (twice, 56-51 and 93-84), Oregon State (80-62), Oregon (68-65), Stanford (67-63) and California (63-57).

“We had to win our way in too, obviously,” Smith said. “If we had lost any one of those games down the stretch, I don’t think we would’ve been here.”

The Cougars earned the No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 tournament and opened with a 69-52 win over UC Berkeley before suffering a 75-70 loss to No. 4 Oregon in the conference quarterfinals. WSU trailed by as many as 19 points in the first half but rallied to take a three-point lead with 8:27 remaining in the second half. The Cougars and Ducks traded blows down the stretch before Oregon closed the game out on a 7-0 run.

Eastern and WSU matched up earlier this season in a 82-56 win for the Cougars behind a 24-point performance by guard Jabe Mullins, who shot eight of 11 from three-point range in the Nov. 21 win. Since EWU became a Division 1 program, WSU holds a 16-2 advantage over the Eagles according to a release by EWU Athletics. Overall, WSU holds a 57-12 advantage in the 69-game series.

“I’m surprised they did it, just because they try to stay away from teams you’ve played previously,” Smith said. “The analytics said that our shot quality – it was like a tie game. We really shot the ball well. Jabe (Mullins) got it cooking.”

Eastern’s last win in the series came in 2021, a 76-71 win over the Cougars in Pullman where the Eagles outscored WSU 48-31 in the second half.

This is the second time that Eastern has qualified for the NIT, their last appearance being in 2003. That year, the Eagles lost 78-71 to Wyoming in the first round of the tournament. WSU makes its second straight appearance in the NIT after falling to Texas A&M in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden last season. The Cougars defeated Santa Clara at home, then Southern Methodist and Brigham Young on the road in the first three rounds of the tournament.

“Second time around, oOK, we know what’s coming,” Smith said. “Doesn’t guarantee success, but it takes a little of the anxiety, a little of the uncertainty out of it.”

Eastern and No. 4 seed WSU tip off at 8 p.m. at Beasley Coliseum in Pullman Tuesday night. The first three rounds of the NIT are hosted at college campuses, and the semifinals and championship are hosted at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

The winner will move on to face the winner between No. 1 seed Oklahoma State and Youngstown State, which will be played at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

“We were fortunate enough to beat them up in Spokane this year,” Smith said. “They had one of the nation’s longest winning streaks. They’re a team we watch closely. Their style of play, they’re a really well-coached team. It should be a fun game. Hopefully we get some people to come down from Spokane and Cheney to watch this thing.”



EWU guard Steele Venters (2) leads the Eagles in scoring with 15.3 points per game this season. Venters was named this year’s Big Sky Conference MVP.

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