After season impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Eastern wins 13 of its last 15 games and leads 12th-ranked Kansas for more than 20 minutes
Young and hungry is a great way for a collegiate basketball team to attack the off-season.
The Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team closed the 2020-21 season with a 16-8 record, a Big Sky Conference Tournament Championship and a third trip for the school to the NCAA Tournament. There, Eastern led more than it trailed before the 14th-seeded Eagles ended its season with a 93-84 loss to Kansas, a No. 3 seed and ranked 12th nationally entering the tourney.
Of the 14 players Eastern took to Indianapolis, Ind., for the NCAA Tournament, all were underclassmen except for two seniors. Of the seven players who played at least 16 minutes, there were three sophomores, two juniors and two seniors who could theoretically return based on the NCAA decision that the pandemic year does not count against a student-athlete’s eligibility.
“We’ll come back stronger, come back smarter and come back hungrier,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans, who concluded his fourth season at the helm. “We have the ingredients, but we just have to come back and do it better.”
Eastern finished the Big Sky Conference season 12-3 and as the league runner-up, and the Eagles closed the year winning 13 of their last 15 games. Eastern had won nine-straight games before falling to Idaho State 68-63 on March 3. But the Eagles rolled through the Big Sky Conference Tournament with a trio of victories, leading for a total of 108:19 out of 120 minutes (trailed for 8:25 and tied for 3:16). EWU led by as many as 12, 38 and 20 in the three wins, respectively.
“We have to be proud of everybody in our program – everybody came up big all year and gave us opportunities to play and had us ready all year along,” said Legans. “You have to be happy for the entire program. We have a young team and will have back players with experience. I’m excited about the future of our program and where it’s going.”
In EWU’s finale, junior Tanner Groves poured in a career-high 35 points for Eastern, while his younger brother Jacob Groves had career highs with 23 points and nine rebounds. Eastern led by 10 twice in the second half, but a game-deciding 25-7 stretch turned a six-point advantage into a 12-point deficit with five minutes to play.
The Eagles led for 20:47 compared to 18:07 for the Jayhawks, who were ranked 12th nationally in the Associated Press top 25 poll entering the game. Kansas led the final 8:46.
“I don’t believe in moral victories, but today was one of those times where I told the team this was a moral victory for them,” said Legans. “They played amazing, great and hard, and played toe-to-toe with one of the best programs in the county. America was able to see that, and we saw our team go out and compete against some of the best players in the country. You have to be proud of our guys, and I was today.”
The Groves Bros combined for 58 points on 19-of-29 shooting a week after both were named to the All-Tournament team at the Big Sky Conference Tournament. They led EWU to the title and into EWU’s third NCAA Tournament, but EWU’s quest for the first victory by a No. 14 seed since 2016 and an attempt to end a 13-game losing streak in the tourney by the Big Sky came up short.
Eastern out-shot Kansas 50 percent to 48 percent, and equaled the Jayhawks on the boards 33-33. The difference in the game was offensive rebounds (10 for Kansas, five for Eastern) and turnovers (13 for Eastern, six for Kansas). The result were advantages for KU of 13-2 in second-chance points and 12-7 in points off turnovers.
“I wish we could have pulled this one out – we had opportunities,” said Legans, who played in the tournament twice and was an assistant in 2015 when EWU last appeared. “We missed on some things, and Kansas made plays when we didn’t. That part hurts, but I couldn’t be more proud of our university and this team. They played amazing.”
Eastern was making its third NCAA Tournament appearance, and is now 0-3 in opening round games. They arrived in Indianapolis on March 14 fresh off of winning the title at the Big Sky Conference Championship, then watched the selection show as a team. Eastern then spent a day undergoing two rounds of Covid-19 testing and quarantining in their hotel. Finally, EWU was able to begin a week of practices at the Indiana Convention Center on Monday, March 15, in preparation of their match-up with one of college basketball’s most successful programs.
Quick Postseason Notes
* Eastern nearly pulled off the upset of Kansas in the NCAA Tournament on March 20, 2021, and later that night Abilene Christian took care of a bit of history for fellow No. 14 seeds. Until it beat Texas, the last win for a #14 seed came in 2016 when Stephen F. Austin (SFA) won 70-56 over West Virginia. Through the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, #14 seeds are now 18-106 in the NCAA Tournament 1st round (1985+), and are 22-122 versus #3 seeds. The Big Sky Conference has had two No. 14 seeds win – in 1999, Weber State 76-74 over North Carolina and in 1995, Weber State 79-72 over Michigan State 72.
* Current Members of the Big Sky Conference are now a collective 17-59 in the tournament, and the last Big Sky Conference win as on March 16, 2006, when #12 Montana won 87-79 over #5 Nevada (now 14 losses in row). The record for schools that were in the Big Sky at the time they played in the NCAA Tournament is 11-55. This is the ninth time the Big Sky has been a #14 seed, and there have been eight opening-round wins in league history dating back to 1969.
* Prior to its NCAA Tournament game, the last venture to Indiana for EWU was a triumphant one. A heart-stopping 88-86 victory at Big Ten Conference member Indiana on Nov. 24, 2014, will go down as one of the greatest victories in school history after the Eagles snapped the nation’s third-longest non-conference home court winning streak at 43 in front of 11,636 Hoosier fans at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. It was the first-ever win for the Eagles in 14 tries against a Big Ten Conference opponent and was the first Big Sky win on a Big Ten home court. Legans was an assistant coach on that squad.
* Eastern seniors Jack Perry and Jacob Davison were redshirt freshmen on EWU’s last team to advance to a national postseason tournament in 2018. Juniors Tanner Groves and Kim Aiken Jr. redshirted that season. Davison had seven points, four steals and three rebounds in EWU’s loss to Utah Valley in the CBI. Perry scored four points in 26 minutes of action in that contest.
* Eastern had played Kansas once before, an 85-47 Jayhawk victory on Dec. 5, 2007. Kirk Earlywine – who was in attendance for the rematch — was EWU’s head coach then, two seasons before Legans became one of his assistants. Kansas finished 37-3 in the 2007-08 season and went on to win the NCAA Tournament championship. After the NCAA Tournament loss, the Eagles are 0-10 versus the Big 12 Conference.
* The NCAA announced in early January the entire 2021 men’s basketball championship will be played in Indiana, with the majority of the tournament’s 67 games taking place in Indianapolis. The Final Four is scheduled for Saturday, April 3 and Monday, April 5, with the championship game at 6 p.m. on CBS. The NCAA also announced exact preliminary-round dates in January, with games played on two courts inside Lucas Oil Stadium, as well as Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington. Only one game at a time will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium. Teams are practicing at the Indiana Convention Center with multiple courts set up inside the venue. All teams will be housed on dedicated hotel floors, with physically-distanced meeting and dining rooms, as well as secure transportation to and from competition venues.
* Eastern’s first NCAA Tournament appearance came under head coach Ray Giacoletti on March 19, 2004, when the Eagles fell to No. 3-ranked and No. 2-seeded Oklahoma State 75-56 in Kansas City, Mo. Eastern returned 14 years later under head coach Jim Hayford, and fell to #22/#4 Georgetown 84-74 in Portland, Ore., on March 19, 2015.
* Eastern finished the season 16-8 overall after finishing 12-3 in the league, and the Eagles closed the year winning 13 of their last 15 games. Eastern had won nine-straight games before falling to Idaho State 68-63 on March 3.
* The Eagles rolled through the Big Sky Conference Tournament with a trio of victories, leading for a total of 108:19 out of 120 minutes (trailed for 8:25 and tied for 3:16). EWU led by as many as 12, 38 and 20 in the three wins, respectively.
* Eastern finished as the Big Sky runner-up after leading the league from Feb. 6 to March 3, and won 10 of its last 11 Big Sky games to finish 12-3 and tied with Weber State. But Southern Utah finished perfect at home and won their last nine games to snag the league title away, while the Wildcats won their last seven.
* In the final Big Sky Conference standings based on winning percentage, Southern Utah was first (12-2, .857), followed by EWU and Weber State (12-3 .800). They were followed by Idaho State and Montana State (both 8-6 .571), Montana (7-9 .438), Portland State and Northern Colorado (both 6-8 .429), Sacramento State (5-9 .357), Northern Arizona (4-10 .286), and Idaho (1-17 .056).
* The Eagles were playing in their third-straight league championship game, having lost to Montana in 2018 and 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 tournament when the Eagles entered as the No. 1 seed. Eastern now has a 3-6 record in the championship games, with previous tourney titles in 2004 and 2015 to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
* Eastern was making its 18th Big Sky Conference Tournament appearance in 33 years as a member of the league, and now has a record of 20-15 in its 35 games. The Eagles are 7-5 all-time in the quarterfinals, and went on to win tourney titles in 2004 and 2015 to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Eastern is now 9-4 in the semifinals and 3-6 in the championship.
* Eastern won its 12 league games by an average winning margin of 14.2 points per game, and its lone league losses were by a total of 12 points (5 twice, 2). Overall entering the postseason, Eastern lost to Oregon by 17, but the Eagles lost their other six other games by an average margin of just 3.8 points (5 three times, 3 twice, 2).
* Eastern headed to Boise with a late-season starting lineup that consisted of two juniors and three sophomores. The team’s lone seniors — Jacob Davison and Jack Perry – started Eastern’s final regular season game on March 5 in a 75-62 home win over Idaho State, and had 18 and 11 points, respectively. Perry has remained in the starting lineup, but Davison has come off the bench in the last three games and was replaced by sophomore Jacob Groves. Through the Kansas game, 10 different Eagles have combined for 87 double-figure scoring performances, and three players combined for 12 double-doubles.
* Eastern had a nine-year stretch from the 2004-05 season through 2012-13 in which the Eagles won just 61 Big Sky games and were a collective 2-3 in the league tournament. In the eight years since then, Eastern has won 100 league games with at least 10 each season. Eastern is 12-4 in the Big Sky Tournament with titles in 2015 and 2021 (starting with the 2014-15 season).
Eagles in National Postseason Tournaments
* In the 2020-21 season, Eastern made its seventh appearance in a national postseason tournament in school history. Eastern advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2004, 2015 and 2021, were in the NIT in 2003 and played in three College Basketball Invitational (CBI) tournaments in 2016, 2017 and 2018. In the 2016 CBI, Eastern recorded its first win in a national postseason tournament as a member of Division I with a 79-72 home win over Pepperdine. The Eagles are now 1-7 in postseason national tournaments as a member of NCAA Division I, and 7-12 overall.
* Eastern also played in the NAIA Championships (then known as NAIB) on five occasions, with a 6-5 record in appearances in 1942, 1943, 1945, 1946 and 1947. Before beating Pepperdine in 2016, Eastern’s previous national tournament victory came on March 12, 1947, when Eastern – then known as the Eastern Washington College of Education Savages – beat Dakota Wesleyan 62-48. One year earlier, Eastern lost to Pepperdine before meeting the Waves again for the second time in school history nearly 70 years to the day later in the CIT.
Here is a list of Eastern’s all-time games in National Postseason Tournaments as a
member of NCAA Division I (1-7) . . .
3/20/21 – NCAA Tournament – #12 rank/#3 seed Kansas (Indianapolis, Ind.) – L, 84-93
3/13/18 – College Basketball Invitational – at Utah Valley (Orem, Utah) – L, 65-87
3/15/17 – College Basketball Invitational – at Wyoming (Laramie, Wyo.) – L, 81-91
3/21/16 – College Basketball Invitational – at Nevada (Reno, Nev.) – L, 70-85
3/16/16 – College Basketball Invitational – Pepperdine (Cheney, Wash.) – W, 79-72
3/19/15 – NCAA Tournament – #22 rank/#4 seed Georgetown (Portland, Ore.) – L, 74-84
3/19/04 – NCAA Tournament – #3 rank/#2 seed Oklahoma St. (Kansas City, Mo.) – L, 56-75
3/20/03 – National Invitation Tournament – at Wyoming (Laramie, Wyo.) – L, 71-78
Here is a list of Eastern’s all-time games in the NAIA Tournament, which was then known as the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament (6-5) . . .
3/13/47 – NAIB Tournament – Marshall (Kansas City, Mo.) – L, 48-56
3/12/47 – NAIB Tournament – Dakota Wesleyan (Kansas City, Mo.) – W, 62-48
3/11/47 – NAIB Tournament – Culver-Stockton (Kansas City, Mo.) – W, 51-48
3/14/46 – NAIB Tournament – Pepperdine (Kansas City, Mo.) – L, 42-46
3/13/46 – NAIB Tournament – Southeastern Oklahoma (Kansas City, Mo.) – W, 45-37
3/12/46 – NAIB Tournament – Louisiana Tech (Kansas City, Mo.) – W, 66-44
3/13/45 – NAIB Tournament – Doane – (Kansas City, Mo.) – L, 51-54
3/11/43 – NAIB Tournament – Southeast Missouri (Kansas City, Mo.) – L, 51-57 (ot)
3/10/43 – NAIB Tournament – St. Cloud State (Kansas City, Mo.) – W, 54-51
3/09/43 – NAIB Tournament – Valparaiso (Kansas City, Mo.) – W, 54-52
3/10/42 – NAIB Tournament – Southeastern State (Kansas City, Mo.) – L, 33-43
More Season Notes
Both Groves Bros Shine and Earn Big Sky All-Tournament Honors
It didn’t take long for America to be introduced to the Groves Bros.
Junior Tanner Groves and his younger brother Jacob Groves combined for all of Eastern’s points in a game-opening 9-0 run to start its NCAA Tournament game versus 12th-ranked and No. 3 seeded Kansas on March 20, 2021, in Indianapolis, Ind. They ended up with 16 apiece at halftime and combined for 58 in the game, eventually won 93-84 by the Jayhawks over the 14th-seeded Eagles.
“It’s an unbelievable stage and it’s great for them because they are terrific humans,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. “It is fun to coach them and see them end the season on a high note. Even though we didn’t win, they played great basketball. For both of them to get 20, you’d have to search to find two brothers to ever both get over 20 in the same game in the NCAA Tournament. We are proud of them and they are right there in our backyard. They were un-recruited and played great against some of the top players in the nation. They did a great job.”
Tanner Groves poured in a career-high 35 points for Eastern, while Jacob Groves had career highs with 23 points and nine rebounds. The Groves Bros combined for 19-of-29 shooting from the field, 9-of-16 from the 3-point stripe and 11-of-12 from the free throw line a week after both were named to the All-Tournament team at the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
The Big Sky Conference MVP, Tanner Groves made 11-of-18 shots from the floor, including 5-of-11 3-point attempts. He also sank 8-of-9 free throws and had five rebounds and three blocked shots. Jacob Groves, a sophomore, had a career-high 23 points and equaled his high with nine rebounds. He had 16 of his points in the first half, and finished the game 8-of-11 from the field overall and 4-of-5 from 3-point range. He also had nine rebounds, a blocked shot, a steal and an assist. His previous career high was 21 versus Montana in the Big Sky Conference Tournament semifinals.
Both Groves brothers are academically adept as well, with Tanner a nominee for Academic All-America honors with a 3.93 accumulative grade point average through fall quarter of 2020. Jacob has the same major and a 3.82 GPA.
A week earlier, Tanner turned his regular season MVP into a tournament MVP honor as well, and he brought his brother along for the ride. The elder Groves was selected as the MVP of the Big Sky Conference Championship in Boise, Idaho, while sophomore Jacob Groves also earned All-Tournament accolades. And it only seemed appropriate for the brothers to headline the tournament since the team hotel and tournament headquarters in Boise was the Grove Hotel.
It was the 12th time both MVP awards were won by the same person in the same season in the 42 years both awards have been presented. Tanner is the first since 2014 when Davion Berry from Weber State won both.
Tanner nearly averaged a double-double with averages of 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds, and had four blocked shots and five assists while shooting at a 48 percent clip. Jacob averaged 13.0 points and 3.3 rebounds, and sank 77.3 percent of his attempts (17-of-22).
They combined for 18 points and 14 rebounds in Eastern’s 66-60 quarterfinal win over Northern Arizona, then combined for 39, eight and five assists in a 78-50 romp over Montana. In a 65-55 championship game victory over Montana State, they combined for 29 points and 17 rebounds as Jacob led EWU in scoring with 15 and Tanner had a double-double of 14 points and 14 boards. Tanner also had a double-double versus the Lumberjacks.
Both Groves brothers are graduates of Shadle Park High School in Spokane, Wash. Tanner stands 6-foot-9 and graduated in 2017, and Jacob is 6-7 and graduated two years later. Their parents are Randy and Tara Groves. Randy played basketball at Shadle Park HS and Community Colleges of Spokane, and Tara (formerly Tara Flugel) still owns the Whitworth scoring record of 2,040 points and is in the school’s Hall of Fame. She’s formerly from Colville, Wash.
Tanner Groves is Big Sky MVP to Continue Trend
He learned his trade under the 2019-20 MVP, and now he’s taken over as the top big man in the Big Sky Conference. And he’s now the MVP too in both the regular season and league tournament. Junior Tanner Groves has had a stellar 2020-21 men’s basketball season, and was rewarded as the Big Sky Conference MVP March 8 after watching teammate and fellow post player Mason Peatling earn the honor a year previously.
Groves was a first team All-Big Sky selection, joining junior Kim Aiken Jr. on that squad as EWU was the lone league school to have two players on the first team. Aiken was also selected as the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and sophomore Tyler Robertson was picked as the Top Reserve.
Big Sky Conference coaches selected the honors, and continued a recent trend within the Eagle Basketball program. Groves becomes the fourth MVP in the last five years, joining Peatling, Bogdan Bliznyuk (2018) and Jacob Wiley (2017) in earning the honor, and EWU now has a total of six in school history.
Aiken is just the second Eagle to earn the Big Sky’s top honor on defense, joining Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame member Alvin Snow who was honored in 2004. Robertson’s accolade is the first time an Eagle has earned the top reserve honor.
Eagles Won 13 of Their Last 15
Until falling to Idaho State on March 3, Eastern had won nine-straight games and hadn’t tasted defeat since losing at Northern Colorado on Jan. 21. The nine-game winning streak is now in sole possession of second-best in Eastern’s NCAA Division I history, and is one of 12 the Eagles have had of six-straight or more since moving to D-I in the 1983-84 season. The record is 11 set by the 2003-04 Eastern team which advanced to the NCAA Tournament that season.
After winning their season finale and winning three games at the Big Sky Conference Tournament, the Eagles were back on their roll much like they were in the 2019-20 season. After five games of the league season in 2019-20, the Eagles were 3-2 (like this year’s team), and had won the first game of what would become a six-game winning streak. Eastern ended the regular season with a streak of seven-straight victories to win the league title with a 16-4 mark. This season, EWU was 2-2 after back-to-back losses to Northern Colorado and Sacramento State, but won 10 of the next 11 heading into the league tournament that was suspended after the first round because of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In EWU’s 12 conference wins this season, Eastern out-scored opponents 84.3 to 70.1 (+14.2), out-shot them 49.8 percent to 40.5 percent, out-rebounded them 35.9 to 31.8 (+5.1) and had 22 more 3-pointers (+1.8 per game, 40.5 percent to 32.2 percent). The Eagles also made 82.6 percent of their free throws compared to 73.5 percent for opponents, leading to an advantage of 34 makes (+2.8 per game).
In those 12 victories, Tanner Groves sank 58.6 percent of his shots from the field, 39.1 percent from the 3-point stripe and 84.5 from the charity line to average 17.4 points and 7.5 rebounds. Kim Aiken Jr. averaged 12.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.3 blocks and 0.9 steals while sinking 49.5 percent from the field, 37.8 from the arc and 84.1 percent from the line. Michael Meadows (14.0) and Tyler Robertson (11.2) also averaged in double figures in those 12 games, and Robertson averaged 3.0 assists.
Because EWU Played Just 24 Games, Only a Few Records Fall
Eastern played 24 games in the 2020-21 season – a sizeable number during a pandemic, but not so great in terms of setting team and individual records.
But there were four big ones based upon percentages that were broken in the areas of shooting defense and free throw shooting. Opponents made just 41.7 percent of their field goal attempts versus EWU, a NCAA Division I record that was previously held by the 2019-20 squad at 42.7 percent. The overall record is 33.0 percent set in 1953-54. Eastern also held opponents to 31.4 percent from the 3-point arc, an all-time record that broke the previous mark of 33.3 percent in 1994-95.
Eastern’s 79.1 percent accuracy from the free throw line was an all-time record, breaking the mark of 77.9 percent in 1979-80 and EWU’s DI record of 77.0 percent in 2016-17. Eastern also broken an all-time record for fewest fouls per game at 17.0, breaking the previous mark of 17.8 set in 2014-15.
Individually, Jack Perry’s 50.0 percent from the 3-point arc (22-of-44) equaled the third-best in school history. Kim Aiken Jr. became just the ninth Eagle in school history to average more than 10 points and eight rebounds during Big Sky Conference play, with Aiken averaging 13.1 and 8.9 in the 2020-21 season.
Aiken also joined Jacob Davison on an elite list of just 23 players all-time at EWU with at least 800 career points and 200 rebounds. He now has 877/649 in his career, and Davison increased his totals to 1,365/348 in 2020-21. Davison is also now one of just 12 former players to have at least 800 points and 150 assists in a career, with current totals of 1,365/179. Aiken is just 123 points away from joining four other former Eagles in the 1000 point/400 rebound/100 assists club. He currently has a total of 877/649/104 in his 85-game career.
On EWU career all-time top 10 lists, Davison is 10th in points (1,365), sixth in field goals attempted (1,087), ninth in field goals made (484) and ninth in free throws made (259). Aiken is ninth in rebounds (649), 10th in rebounding average (7.6), ninth in 3-pointers attempted (432) and eighth in blocked shots (76). Perry is 10th in 3-point percentage (.413, 150-of-363) and tied for 10th in total 3-pointers made (150).
Eagles Record Best-Ever Sweep of Montana Schools
In what was the biggest sweep of the Montana schools in EWU’s 34-year history in the Big Sky Conference, Eastern enjoyed a 15.0 margin of victory in a four-game sweep of Montana State and Montana from Feb. 11-20. The Eagles won those four games by margins of 16, 16, 14, 14, including a pair of twin 90-76 victories over UM for Eastern’s first season sweep of the Grizzlies in 18 years (since 2003).
Eastern also previously had season sweeps over the two Montana schools in 2003 and 1990, but won by an average of 10.8 in ’03 (10, 15 vs. UM; 14, 4 vs MSU) and 9.4 in ’90 (1, 17 vs. UM; 6, 14 vs. MSU).
In the four regular season games combined in 2021, Eastern led 83 percent of the time — 133:06 out of 160 total minutes (opponents led for 19:09 and the game was tied the other 7:45). Montana never led versus EWU in those two meetings (EWU led for 77:49 and there was no score for 2:11). The Eagles had their largest leads of 17 and 24 versus the Bobcats and 27 and 29 against the Griz.
Kim Aiken Jr., was a main contributor to the quartet of victories, earning Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors after each of the sweeps. In those four games, Aiken had a trio of 20+ scoring performances and came a single rebound away from averaging a double-double. He had 81 points (20.3 average), 39 rebounds (9.8), nine assists (2.3) and eight steals (2.0) in those four Eagle victories, including a trio of road wins.
Eastern beat Montana State 93-77 on Feb. 11 and 85-69 on Feb. 13, then won at home against Montana 90-76 on Feb. 18. Two days later in Missoula, Eastern won by the same 90-76 score.
Eastern then soundly beat both schools in the Big Sky Conference Tournament, defeating two-time defending champion Montana in the semifinals by a 78-50 score, and Montana State in the championship game 65-55. In both games, Eastern had leads of at least 20 points and big leads at halftime. Eastern had a monstrous 44-15 edge against Montana in the first half, and led MSU 38-24 at intermission.
Eastern led for 38:05 in the semifinals versus Montana (UM led for 1:38), and versus MSU in the title game the Eagles led for 38:26 (the Bobcats never led).
Finals Week Occurs During Eastern’s Stay in the NCAA Tournament Bubble
The Eastern basketball team not only had preparations for Kansas in the NCAA Tournament to deal with during the week of March 15-19, the Eagles also had to take finals for their classes at EWU. It turned out to be a great time to extol the academic accomplishments of student-athletes in the Eastern program.
Following fall quarter of 2020, the current accumulative grade point average of the team’s current roster is 3.51, with the 14 players in Indianapolis all having at least a 3.08. In four years under head coach Shantay Legans, the Eagles have had team accumulative grade point averages of 3.51, 3.52, 3.59 and 3.40.
In the past three years under Shantay Legans, Eastern has averaged more than eight selections yearly on the Big Sky Conference All-Academic Team. The Eagles had seven in the first year under Legans, 10 in his second season and eight in the 2019-20 campaign. Senior Jack Perry will receive his fourth honor in 2020-21 when it’s announced in April, and EWU expects to have a total of nine on the list when final winter quarter grades are posted.
More About the Eagles
Thanks to winning 10 of its last 11 Big Sky games, in league games only Eastern led in five major categories – scoring offense (82.9), free throw percentage (.819), 3-pointers made per game (8.9), assists (16.1) and assist/turnover ratio (+1.43). Eastern was second in scoring margin (+10.5), field goal percentage (.488), 3-point field goal percentage (.388), rebounding margin (+3.0) and rebounds (35.7).
Overall, Eastern led the league in assist/turnover ratio (+1.32 to rank 29th in NCAA Division I), free throw percentage (.791 to rank eighth in NCAA Division I) and assists (15.2 to rank 54th nationally). Eastern was also second in field goal percentage defense (.417, 84th), and No. 3 in scoring margin (+7.9, 52nd), scoring offense (78.3, 35th), 3-pointers made per game (8.5, 61st), field goal percentage offense (.468, 49th) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.314, 62nd).
The Eagles were 11-0 when they out-rebounded their opponent, 8-1 when they had at least 36 boards, and 11-1 when they held opponents to 35 or less rebounds. Eastern was 13-3 when it had a better field goal percentage, 7-1 when it made at least 50 percent, 10-3 when sinking 45 percent or better and 13-3 when opponents shot less than 45 percent. In addition, the Eagles were 13-4 when scoring 70 or more points, and only once did an opponent make 50 percent of its shots versus EWU (Southern Utah 56.1 percent on Jan. 16 in a 99-94 Eagle loss).
Junior forward Tanner Groves, who was named the league MVP and first team All-Big Sky honors, ranked tied for second in the Big Sky Conference in rebounding (8.0 per game, just behind teammate Kim Aiken Jr. at 8.5) and field goal percentage (.560 to rank 33rd in NCAA Division I). He was also fourth in scoring (17.2) and sixth in blocked shots (1.1). In Big Sky games only, he finished first in field goal percentage (.586), fourth in scoring (17.9), fifth in rebounding (7.4), eighth in free throw percentage (.843) and 11th in blocked shots (0.7).
Pre-season All-Big Sky Conference selection Kim Aiken Jr. was a first team All-Big Sky choice and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, and earned two-straight Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors from the league office in February. He averaged 11.3 points (22nd in the Big Sky) and 8.4 rebounds (first) in his junior season. He made 58-of-71 free throws (.817) and had 32 steals (1.3 per game to rank eighth), 25 blocked shots (1.0 to rank seventh) and 48 assists. In Big Sky Conference games only, Aiken led the league in rebounding (8.9) and was 18th in scoring (13.1), 10th in free throw percentage (.804), 13th in 3-pointers per game (1.53), 10th in steals (1.2) and fourth in blocked shots (1.2).
Sophomore Tyler Robertson, named the league’s Top Reserve, also averaged in double figures for EWU at 11.1 points per game to rank 24th in the league overall, and was eighth in assists (3.0) and 11th in 3-pointers per game (1.52). In league games only, he was tops in the Big Sky in assist-to-turnover ratio (+2.94 with 47 assists and 16 turnovers) and seventh in assists (3.1). He averaged 10.9 points per game during Big Sky play, with sophomore Michael Meadows averaging 12.9 points (19th in the Big Sky) in the 12 league games he played with a string of nine-straight games in double figures to end league play. Meadows finished second in league games only in free throw percentage at .909 (30-of-33). Overall, Meadows averaged 10.5 points in the 19 games he’s played to rank 28th in the league.
Preseason All-Big Sky MVP Jacob Davison scored 18 points in EWU’s regular season finale versus Idaho State, and was 12th in the Big Sky in 3-pointers made per game (1.45) overall and seventh in league games only (1.85). He scored 31 versus Southern Utah on Jan. 16 when he hit nine 3-pointers to come one from the school record of 10. For the season, he averaged 9.8 points in the 22 games he’s played.
Prior to league play starting on Dec. 19 with an 80-64 win at Northern Arizona, on the same trip Eastern fell 80-75 at Saint Mary’s in a game in which the Eagles led for 28 1/2 minutes. The first victory for the Eagles came on Dec. 11 when they took a 17-4 lead over The College of Idaho and cruised to an 80-56 win. Previously, Eastern fell to Oregon 69-52 on Dec. 7, just two days after a heart-breaking 70-67 loss at Arizona. Eastern opened the season with a 71-68 loss at Washington State on Nov. 28.
Eastern had a trio of losses to top-notch NCAA Division I competition by a total of just 11 points after leading at halftime and with 10 minutes left in each. One of those was an 80-75 loss on Dec. 15 at Saint Mary’s, which had entered the game ranked fourth in the CollegeInsider.com top 25 poll of mid-major teams. Two of those losses were versus Pac-12 Conference foes Washington State and Arizona.
In each of EWU’s first two games, Eastern led at halftime, led with 10 minutes left and led with five minutes remaining. Eastern led for 33:09 versus WSU, but a late 13-5 run by the Cougars was the difference; a 14-4 run by Arizona cost the Eagles that win after they led for 13:49 in the game. Eastern also led by as many as six in the first half against Oregon and trailed by just four at halftime. Against Saint Mary’s on Dec. 15, the Eagles led for 28:30 and had the lead at halftime and with 10 minutes to play.
A year ago, Eastern was 23-8 overall and 16-4 in the Big Sky Conference to win the outright regular season title. The Covid-19 Pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the season, including the conclusion of the Big Sky Conference Tournament and the entire NCAA Tournament. Eastern was on site for their league tournament opener on March 12, 2020, when the news hit. The Eagles entered the 2020-21 season with four starters back from the 2019-20 squad.
Eastern’s school-record 16 Big Sky wins a year ago included sweeps over seven of the league’s 10 other teams, and a split versus Idaho State and Idaho. Eastern was swept by Montana, which had won the two previous regular season and tournament titles. The Eagles had just two seniors – Mason Peatling and Tyler Kidd – so EWU has high aspirations for 2020 and beyond.
Eastern won its fourth Big Sky regular season title in school history (2000, 2004, 2015, 2020), but joined 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).
Eagles Had +14.3 Winning Margin During Nine-Game Winning Streak
Eastern averaged 86.8 points per game during its recently-ended nine-game winning streak, while allowing 72.4 for an average winning margin of 14.3 points per game. During the streak, EWU out-shot opponents 50.7 percent to 42.5 percent overall, and 42.0 percent to 35.1 percent from the 3-point stripe, and made 83.8 percent from the free throw line. Eastern also had a plus 5.8 rebounding margin in those games, averaging 36.4 per game. The Eagles are 8-0 this season when they out-rebound their opponent, and 7-1 when they have at least 36 boards.
Eagles Showing Big-Half Dominance in League Play
The Eagles won 10 league games by at least 12 points (26 once, 16 three times, 15 twice, 14 twice, 13, 12), plus victories by six and eight points. Their three losses came by a combined 12 points (5 twice, 2). Their biggest margin of the season came in a 90-64 win over Idaho on Feb. 6, plus wins by 16 over Northern Arizona on Dec. 19 (80-64) as well as both games at Montana State (93-77 and 85-69) on Feb. 11 and 13, respectively. Eastern defeated Montana by twin 90-76 scores.
Eastern took a 32-28 lead at halftime at NAU, then used a 48-point second half to pull away. Eastern led 34-28 against the Vandals before having its best half of the season with 56 points to surge ahead. Eastern had second-half performances of 44 and 49 at MSU and first half performances of 51 and 49 against Montana. The Eagles closed the regular season with 47 points in the first half versus Idaho State and then 49 in the first half versus Montana in the Big Sky semifinals, giving them a total of 17 halves this season with at least 43 points (nine in the first half, eight in the second).
The Eagles had entered the NAU game averaging just 29.0 points in the second half through its first five games (145 total), but in the 18 games since have averaged 40.7, with four performances of at least 51. In the first half, Eastern has averaged 49.9 points per game, with eight performances of at least 43 and one with at least 51. The Eagles closed the regular season with 47 points in the first half against Idaho State on March 5 en route to a 13-point victory to avenge a five-point loss two days earlier.
A Finalist for Two Awards, Legans Currently Ranked No. 4 in Winning Percentage in Big Sky History
Eastern head coach Shantay Legans is one of 25 finalists for the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award which goes to a coach who not only achieves success on the court but who displays moral integrity off the floor as well. He is also among the 25 finalists for the Ben Jobe Award presented to the top NCAA Division I minority coach. Both awards will be announced on April 1 as chosen by Collegeinsider.com.
Legans, the 2019-20 Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year, is No. 4 in winning percentage in the 58-year history of the Big Sky Conference – second among those who coached at least four seasons. After the ISU games, he’s 53-20 in four seasons for a percentage of .726. He only ranks behind Phil Johnson (Weber State 1968-71, .886, 39-5), Kermit Davis (Idaho 1989-90, .813, 26-6) and Dick Motta (Weber State, 1963-68, .727, 40-15), and is ahead of Travis DeCuire (Montana 2014-present, .719, 92-36) and Ron Abegglen (Weber State, 1991-99, .717, 86-34).
Including Big Sky Conference Tournament games (7-2), Legans is 60-22 versus Big Sky Conference competition for a .732 winning percentage.
Overall, Legans is now 75-49 overall (.605) in four seasons. In school history, Ray Giacoletti (four seasons, 2000-04) currently ranks behind Legans in winning percentage overall (.580, 69-50) and is No. 2 in league games only (.707, 41-17). In Big Sky history, Legans is 20th all-time in the league (DeCuire is ahead of him at .628 and Weber State’s Randy Rahe is at .621).
In league games in his four years at the helm, Legans has directed EWU to 13, 12, 16 and 12 victories, His 41 league wins in his first three seasons at the helm is the best three-year stretch in school history. His four-year total of 53 is also the best all-time at EWU in 34 seasons in the league, as Eastern has won at least 10 league games for the eighth-straight season. That only happened six times before in EWU’s first 26 seasons as a member of NCAA Division I.
Legans led EWU to a final record of 23-8 overall and 16-4 in the league in the 2019-20 season. Legans entered the 2020-21 season 59-41 in his three years as head coach for a .590 winning percentage. In the spring of 2020, Legans was selected to ESPN’s “40 Under 40” list of the top NCAA Division I basketball coaches under the age of 40. He was selected No. 11 — eighth among head coaches — in the list of coaches ranked by achievement and potential.
Eastern Has Eighth-Toughest Strength of Schedule in Initial NCAA NET Rankings
While ranking 110th in the nation overall and tops in the Big Sky Conference, the ranking that popped out most in the initial NCAA NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) rankings released on Jan. 4 was No. 8. That was the team’s national ranking in strength of schedule, which was aided by pre-conference games versus three Pacific-12 Conference foes (Arizona, Oregon, Washington State) and another powerhouse from the West Coast Conference (Saint Mary’s).
The second-highest Big Sky Conference school in the initial rankings was Southern Utah at 135, followed by Weber State (162), Sacramento State (188) and Montana (190) in the top 200. The remainder of the league ranked from No. 224 (Montana State) to No. 333 (Idaho) among the 340 NCAA Division I programs who had played at that point of the season. Among EWU’s non-conference foes, Oregon (19), Arizona (21), Saint Mary’s (53) and Washington State (101) were all in the top 101.
The NET rankings serves as the primary sorting tool for the selection and seeding process for the NCAA tournament. The NET is in its third season for men’s basketball and was modified in the offseason when it was simplified to a two-component system. The two components are the Team Value Index, which rewards teams for beating quality opponents, especially away from home, and a team’s efficiency rating, which is adjusted for the strength of an opponent and the location of a game.
Through games of March 14 entering the NCAA Tournament, Eastern was tops among Big Sky schools with a ranking of 114th, and is 217th in strength of schedule (fourth in the league). Kansas, EWU’s opponent in the NCAA Tournament, was 11th overall and 16th in strength of schedule.
Free Throw Record Falls at Montana State
En route to a 93-77 victory at Montana State on Feb. 11, Eastern made its first 25 free throws and finished 27-of-28 from the free throw line for a school-record .964 percentage. The previous school record (minimum of 20 attempts) was .952 set twice previously with 20-of-21 performances. The last time it occurred was on Jan. 8, 2009 versus Idaho State and the first time came against Portland on Dec. 10, 1994. Five Eagles were perfect from the line against the Bobcats – Tanner Groves (9-of-9), Kim Aiken Jr. (8-of-8), Michael Meadows (5-of-5) and Tyler Robertson (2-of-2). The only player to miss was Jacob Groves, who was 3-of-4 after a miss late in the second half.
Eagles Nearly Set 3-Point Records Versus SUU
With 10 3-pointers in the first half and nine in the second, the Eagles as a team and Jacob Davison as an individual flirted with school records for 3-point shooting in EWU’s 99-94 loss to Southern Utah on Jan. 16. Eastern came one make from the team record of 20 set against Portland State on Jan. 28, 2016. Eastern finished the SUU game with 43 3-point attempts, and the school record of 45 came against Oregon on Nov. 9, 2018. Eastern’s high through the first seven games of the season was 10 3-pointers made on two occasions, and 35 attempts versus The College of Idaho on Dec. 11.
Davison sank nine of 18 3-point attempts, and his previous high for 3-pointers made was seven. The school record is 10 set previously by Tyler Harvey (2/1/14 vs. Northern Colorado) and Kevin Winford (12/4/10 vs. New Hope). The record for 3-pointers attempted is 23 (Winford versus New Hope).
Hectic Early Season of Changes
From Nov. 23rd to the start of February, the season featured a hectic and steady stream of schedule changes for Eastern because of the Covid-19 pandemic and related testing protocols.
The season opener for EWU versus Oregon scheduled for Nov. 25 was postponed because of Covid-19 precautions and concerns. Later in the week, the opponent for Eastern’s home game on Nov. 30 changed from Northwest University to Montana Tech, but the game was eventually canceled on Nov. 28 – the day Eastern actually opened its season at Washington State with just eight available players. The Eagles searched for a replacement home game, but eventually was scheduled by Arizona for Dec. 5 because of Northern Colorado being unavailable to play the Wildcats on that date.
Also on Nov. 28, it was announced that the move of the opening weekend of conference play versus Northern Arizona would move from Dec. 3 and 5 to Dec. 18 and 19.
On Dec. 6 – the day after Eastern fell at Arizona by just three points – Eastern announced that the Oregon game would be made up on Monday (Dec. 7). On Dec. 8, while EWU was still in Eugene awaiting a flight to Las Vegas, the UNLV game was cancelled because of a positive case within the Runnin’ Rebels program. One day later, on Dec. 9, Eastern added a home game versus The College of Idaho for Friday, Dec. 11.
Eastern’s played its game at Saint Mary’s on Dec. 15 without issues, but then a positive antigen test prior to playing Northern Arizona resulted in further adjustments. While EWU awaited a PCR test that could allow the Eagles to play if it came back negative, game times were adjusted and then the first game subsequently canceled. After the test result was finally received, the Eagles were able to play the Lumberjacks on the afternoon of Dec. 19, and the Eagles triumphed 80-64.
Then, Eastern’s next four games were canceled because of a positive Covid-19 case within the Eastern program and subsequent protocols and procedures. Thus, EWU went a full 25 days without a game, wiping out anticipated doubleheaders versus both Portland State and Weber State.
Eastern finally played again on Jan. 14, splitting with Southern Utah and Northern Colorado in back-to-back weekends. The last disruption came at the end of the month when EWU was supposed to play Sacramento State on Thursday, Jan. 28. After a three-day delay because of a positive Covid-19 case within its program, the games were moved to back-to-back days on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
Games went on without a hitch after that.
The Elder of the “Groves Bros” Tandem, Tanner Groves is Big Sky MVP
He learned his trade under the 2019-20 MVP, and now he’s taken over as the top big man in the Big Sky Conference. And he’s now the MVP too. Junior Tanner Groves has had a stellar 2020-21 men’s basketball season, and was rewarded as the Big Sky Conference MVP after watching teammate and fellow post player Mason Peatling earn the honor a year ago.
He added to his list of honors by being selected as the MVP of the Big Sky Conference Championship in Boise, Idaho, while his younger brother also earned All-Tournament accolades. Tanner nearly averaged a double-double with averages of 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds, and had four blocked shots and five assists while shooting at a 48 percent clip.
Groves previously was honored on several other occasions during this season. Most recently, on March 16, he was selected to the prestigious National Association of Basketball Coaches All-District 6 first team. On Jan. 26, he was selected on the mid-season watch list for the 2020-21 Lou Henson National Player of the Year Award. He is one of 40 players listed as a candidate for the award, which is presented annually to the top mid-major player in NCAA Division I college basketball. This year’s recipient will be announced in April, and the award honors the former Illinois and New Mexico State head coach who won 775 games in 41 seasons.
Groves was rewarded Dec. 31 by being selected to the HoopsHD.com mid-season All-Big Sky Conference team. Twice he earned Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors – the first honor coming on Dec. 21 and the second on Feb. 1 after registering a double-double with 23 points and a career-high 15 rebounds in a win over Sacramento State one day earlier.
He received the same honor the same weeks from College Sports Madness, and was also honored by CSM on Feb. 15 after averaging 21.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in a road sweep over Montana State. Included was a double-double of 26 points (equaling his career high) and 12 rebounds. He sank 68.2 percent of his field goal attempts and 3-of-5 3-point shots (37.5 percent), and all nine of his free throws. He had 15 rebounds for the weekend.
Groves finished the year ranked tied for second in the Big Sky Conference in rebounding (8.0 per game, just behind teammate Kim Aiken Jr. at 8.5) and field goal percentage (.560 to rank 33rd in NCAA Division I). He was also fourth in scoring (17.2) and sixth in blocked shots (1.1). In Big Sky games only, he finished first in field goal percentage (.586), fourth in scoring (17.9), fifth in rebounding (7.4), eighth in free throw percentage (.843) and 11th in blocked shots (0.7).
Groves registered a pair of double-doubles in EWU’s split against Northern Colorado, with the Eagles falling 78-76 in the first game on Jan. 21 and winning the second 82-76 two days later. In the second meeting with UNC, he missed his first free throw of the game, snapping his streak of 27 made free throws in a row dating back to making his last seven at Northern Arizona on Dec. 19. He made 8-of-14 to start the year, but went on a 33-of-36 tear (91.7 percent).
In December, Groves sank 82 percent of the shots he took in a pair of games for the Eagles, and for his efforts he was selected Dec. 21 as the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week. He earned the same honor from College Sports Madness. Groves averaged a double-double as he equaled, then broke, his career-high in scoring in two games – a narrow 80-75 loss at Saint Mary’s on Dec. 15 and then an 80-64 win at Northern Arizona on Dec. 19 to open the league season. In the two games combined, Groves averaged 21.5 points and 10.0 rebounds, while also contributing four assists and two blocked shots. He sank 16-of-23 field goals for 69.6 percent and 11-of-13 free throws for 85 percent – a combined 27-of-33 for 81.8 percent. Groves hit 7-of-10 shots and 3-of-4 free throws at Saint Mary’s to finish with 17 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots. The 6-foot-9 junior had the fourth double-double of his career, hitting 9-of-13 field goals and 8-of-9 free throws to finish with 26 points and 13 rebounds at NAU. That eclipsed his previous high of 17 on three occasions, including twice this season. His 13 boards equaled the 13 he had earlier this season at Oregon, and he also had three assists.
“Tanner is a stud and our players did a great job looking for him,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans after the NAU game. “He scored 26 but didn’t shoot any threes, and he loves to shoot threes. He did a great job of getting the ball and making himself available. He’s got a lot more games like that in him. I saw him go against (2019-20 Big Sky MVP) Mason Peatling in practices and we saw the flashes of what he is capable of. He’s playing really, really good basketball and is very confident. You love to see that, especially out of a player with so much character, how hard he plays, how much he loves his teammates and how much he gives his team every game.”
The aptly named “Groves Bros” – including sophomore Jacob Groves – have given Eastern a boost this season. Jacob averaged 9.3 points and 4.2 boards as a sophomore and made 55.2 percent of his shots. He had a stellar performance in the Big Sky Conference Tournament in which he joined his brother on the All-Tournament team by averaging 13.0 points and 3.3 rebounds, and sinking 77.3 percent of his attempts (17-of-22).
Jacob added seven points and seven rebounds in the road victory at Northern Arizona, and had 10 points in a loss at Northern Colorado on Jan. 21. He started every game for EWU from Jan. 23 to March 3, and had 11 points and a career-high three assists versus Sacramento State on Feb. 1. He scored 12 versus Idaho on Feb. 4, then had a career-high 17 points and seven boards two days later versus the Vandals.
Tanner scored 13 at Arizona on Dec. 5, a week after equaling what was then his career high of 17 versus Washington State. He also had nine rebounds and three assists versus the Cougars as he equaled the career high for scoring he had as a sophomore with 17 points. Jacob chipped in 10 points – all in the first half at Arizona after having a career high with 16 points at WSU. He sank 6-of-16 shots in the first start of his career, and had eight rebounds, as he eclipsed his previous high of eight points as a freshman, and his eight rebounds was also a career high as well. Versus Oregon on Dec. 7, Tanner pulled down a career-high 13 rebounds, eclipsing his previous high of 11 as a freshman.
Tanner came off the bench to average 5.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in his sophomore season, and this year helps fill the role left by 2019-20 Big Sky Conference MVP Mason Peatling. Tanner scored a career-high 17 points versus Multnomah on Dec. 13, 2019, including a rebound dunk that was the No. 1 play by ESPN’s Sportscenter that night and had 2 1/2 million views. Groves also came off the bench to score 16 versus Montana State on Feb. 8, 2020, hitting 4-of-5 3-pointers.
Thus far in his 83-game career (27 as a starter) he’s averaged 7.9 points, 4.2 boards and has 62 blocked shots to rank 11th in EWU history, while sinking 54.7 percent from the field. He has nine double-doubles this season and 11 in his career (10-1 record).
Jacob averaged 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in the 24 games he played as a freshman in the 2019-20 season. His first two appearances came in victories against High Point and Belmont, and he had his high game with eight points versus Multnomah. In his 48-game career (14 as a starter), he’s averaging 5.9 points and 2.9 rebounds, and has 17 steals and 29 assists.
Aiken a First Team All-Big Sky Pick and the League’s Defensive Player of the Year
Kim Aiken Jr. has been a beast in recent weeks, and concluded the league season by earning first team All-Big Sky Conference honors and being named the league’s defensive MVP.
Pre-season All-Big Sky Conference selection Kim Aiken Jr. was a first team All-Big Sky choice and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, and earned two-straight Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors from the league office in February. Pre-season All-Big Sky Conference selection Kim Aiken Jr. was a first team All-Big Sky choice and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, and earned two-straight Big Sky Conference Player of the Week honors from the league office in February. He averaged 11.3 points (22nd in the Big Sky) and 8.4 rebounds (first) in his junior season. He made 58-of-71 free throws (.817) and had 32 steals (1.3 per game to rank eighth), 25 blocked shots (1.0 to rank seventh) and 48 assists. In Big Sky Conference games only, Aiken led the league in rebounding (8.9) and was 18th in scoring (13.1), 10th in free throw percentage (.804), 13th in 3-pointers per game (1.53), 10th in steals (1.2) and fourth in blocked shots (1.2).
Aiken has three double-doubles this season and 19 in his career. He has seven double-figure rebounding performances this season and 25 in his career, including a season-high 14 to end the regular season versus Idaho State on March 5. He has 11 performances with at least 20 points (four this season) and 44 with at least 10 (11 this season).
Thus far in his 85-game career (66 as a starter), he is averaging 10.3 points and 7.6 rebounds with 19 career double-doubles (14-5 record). He has 103 career steals, 76 blocked shots and 104 assists. His 649 rebounds currently rank ninth in school history, his 7.6 average is 10th and his 76 blocks are eighth. He also ranks ninth in 3-point field goal attempts with 432 and is 12th in makes with 139.
Continuing a hot streak in conjunction with a sizzling stretch for his team, the pre-season All-Big Sky Conference selection honored two-straight weeks as Big Sky Conference Player of the Week for helping Eastern to back-to-back season sweeps over the Montana schools. The league made the announcement on Feb. 15 and 22, and he was also honored with the same honor by College Sports Madness the second week.
The 6-foot-7 junior from Redlands, Calif., has averaged 24.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in twin 90-76 victories over Montana for EWU’s first season sweep of the Grizzlies in 18 years (since 2003). Coupled with a pair of victories over Montana State the week prior when Aiken was also honored by the league, Eastern enjoyed a 15.0 margin of victory in the four games (16, 16, 14, 14). In the two games combined versus the Grizzlies, Aiken made 65.4 percent of his shots overall, including 7-of-11 from the 3-point stripe for 63.6 percent. He also made 8-of-10 free throws and had six steals, three assists and a pair of blocked shots. Eastern led by as many as 27 in the first half in the Jan. 18 gave versus UM, and 22 at halftime in the rematch, with its largest lead in that game at 29. The wins helped extend EWU’s winning streak to nine – just two from the school record — and keep the Eagles in sole possession of first place in the Big Sky Conference standings.
In four games combined against MSU and UM, Aiken had a trio of 20+ scoring performances and was a single rebound away from averaging a double-double. He had 81 points (20.3 average), 39 rebounds (9.8), nine assists (2.3) and eight steals (2.0) in those four Eagle victories (average winning margin of 15.0 per game).
“We kept throwing (Tanner Groves) the ball, and Kim and Mike (Meadows) stepped up to have terrific games,” said Legans of the Feb. 20 win at Montana to wrap up the team’s fourth-straight Big Sky season sweep. “When you have players who can do things like that and change the game, it really helps. You can take away our 3-point shot, but we can throw the ball inside to Tanner and he’s efficient. Kim was driving the ball to the hole and Mike can get to the rim — Jacob Groves too. We have multiple players than can go make plays at the basket and lead this team.”
In the first game against the Grizzlies, Aiken hit all six of his 2-point shots and 3-of-6 3-pointers to finish with 21 points, eight rebounds and four steals. In the next game, he finished with a career-high 28 points, 10 rebounds, two blocked shots, two steals and two assists. He sank 8-of-14 shots overall, 4-of-5 from the 3-point arc and 8-of-9 free throws. His previous career high was 26 versus Washington on Dec. 4, 2019.
In the sweep at Montana State on Feb. 11 and 13, Aiken averaged a double-double in the 93-77 and 85-69 victories. In the two games combined, Aiken averaged 16.0 points and 10.5 rebounds, and also had six assists and a pair of steals. The 6-foot-7 junior guard/forward from Redlands, Calif., was a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line while making 47.4 percent overall (9-of-19) and 4-of-12 3-point attempts.
In the first win on Feb. 11, he scored 20 points and made all eight of his free throws to help EWU break a school record with a .964 team percentage (27-of-28). He also had eight rebounds and three assists for EWU. In the next game, in which EWU had a key 37-35 rebounding advantage, Aiken had his second double-double of the season and 18th of his career by finishing with 12 points and 13 rebounds. He also had a trio of assists and a steal as EWU held MSU to just seven offensive rebounds after having 17 in the first meeting.
“Kim is amazing on the boards,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans after the MSU sweep. “That’s the Kim Aiken we have come to know and we’ve seen in the past. When he plays like that he’s one of the top three players in the league. He goes to the boards, defends, rebounds, blocks shots, he’s hitting threes and he’s leading our team. He’s really hard to guard and hard to play against.”
Prior to the start of the season, Aiken joined teammate Jacob Davison on the 2020-21 Big Sky Conference Preseason All-Conference Team announced by the league office on Nov. 10. He scored 19 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the 3-point stripe in EWU’s 80-64 win at Northern Arizona, and also had nine boards. He had his first double-double of the season with 23 points and 12 rebounds versus Southern Utah on Jan. 16. He had 11 rebounds versus Idaho on Feb. 6.
Aiken nearly averaged a double-double in the 2019-20 season, finishing fourth in NCAA Division I in defensive rebounds per game (8.2) and 36th in rebounding overall (9.7). He led the Big Sky in both categories, and was also 38th in the nation with 12 double-doubles and averaged 13.3 points per outing. Aiken’s overall rebound average was Eastern’s best since Ron Cox averaged 12.3 in the 1976-77 season when the school was affiliated with the NAIA. Aiken’s average broke the school’s previous DI record of 9.1 in the 2016-17 campaign, and his single-game high of 22 is the second-most in school history and EWU’s DI record.
The 6-foot-7 Aiken also finished his sophomore season third in the league and 85th in the nation in steals (1.74). In league games only, Aiken finished second in rebounding (9.0), first in defensive rebounds (7.5), third in 3-pointers made per game (2.3), fifth in steals (1.7), 12th in blocked shots (1.1) and 21st in scoring (12.1). At times his shooting was inconsistent, but he still managed to sink a team-leading 76 3-pointers on 229 attempts for 33.2 percent. Overall, he shot at a 39.8 percent clip from the field and 78.7 percent from the free throw line (59-of-75).
He had what was then a career-best 26-point effort at Washington on Dec. 4, 2019, and had five total performances of 20+ points (11 in his career). Against Belmont that season in a huge 87-82 victory, he scored eight of EWU’s last 12 points and had four defensive boards in the final 44 seconds on his way to final tallies of 11 points and 11 boards.
Sophomore Meadows Catches Fire as Starter in Last Nine Games
Recently, sophomore Michael Meadows has provided a boost as a starter, and has started each game since Jan. 23rd During Eastern’s nine-game winning streak, he averaged 14.3 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists, and those totals of 129 points, 20 rebounds and 13 assists during the winning streak compare to the 10/3/5 he had in the first four games he played leading up to that winning streak.
He scored in double figures in 12 of EWU’s last 13 games, including 20 in a 90-76 Eagle win at Montana on Feb. 20. Meadows scored 17 of his career-high 21 points in the first half to ignite EWU to a 93-77 win at Montana State on Feb. 11. He finished the game 7-of-13 from the field with a pair of 3-pointers, and also made all five of his free throws. In a 90-64 Eastern victory over Idaho one game earlier, Meadows had 16 points as EWU finished with a total of 11 players scoring and seven with at least one 3-pointer made. He made 5-of-11 shots from the field and all five of his free throws, and also had a career-high five assists with a pair of steals. His previous high for dimes was three. Two days earlier when Eastern won at Idaho 89-75 on Feb. 4, Meadows hit 7-of-10 shots to finish with 17 points, eclipsing his previous career high of 11. He also had three rebounds and a pair of assists, and 10 Eagles scored and eight players hit 3-pointers.
On Feb. 1 in a 94-79 romp over Sacramento State, Meadows equaled what was then his career high with 11 points, and also had three assists. He started for the third-straight game as he equaled the 11 points he had as a freshman versus Portland Bible. Prior to the Sac State game, Meadows had played in six of EWU’s 11 games and was averaging 4.0 points, 1.5 rebounds and shooting just 6-of-25 from the field (24 percent) and 1-of-7 from the 3-point stripe (14.3 percent).
Meadows played in 19 of EWU’s 24 games this season (15 starts) averaged 12.9 points (19th in the Big Sky) in the 12 league games he played with a string of nine-straight games in double figures to end league play. Meadows finished second in league games only in free throw percentage at .909 (30-of-33). Overall, Meadows averaged 10.5 points in the 19 games he’s played to rank 28th in the league.
In his 38-game career (15 as a starter), Meadows is averaging 6.2 points, 1.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists and is shooting 45.3 percent from the field, 38.2 percent from the 3-point stripe and 88.9 percent from the line.
BSC Top Reserve Robertson Continues Solid Contribution as Another of EWU’s Talented Sophomores
Sophomore Tyler Robertson was selected as the Big Sky Conference Top Reserve after providing a huge boost this season for the Eagles, registering 12 double-figure scoring performances, including nine of EWU’s last 16 games. Included was his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds in an 85-69 win over Montana State on Feb. 13.
He had a career-high 21 points with five assists in a 90-76 home win over Montana on Feb. 18, and earlier that month on Feb. 1 against Sacramento State he had 20 points to go along with team highs of six rebounds and six assists. He hit his first seven shots in the game, including four 3-pointers, and finished 7-of-8 overall for the day.
“He’s a swiss army knife – he can do anything on the court, play point guard or play center,” said Legans. “It’s a lot like how Kim plays on defense where he guard anybody, one through five. Tyler can play any offensive position one through five. When you have players like that who can do different things, it puts you in a great position. You want to play everybody, but some games some players do better than others and you have to give them those opportunities. Tonight we saw that outcome with Tyler Robertson.”
Robertson’s had 17 points with five 3-pointers in seven attempts at Saint Mary’s on Dec. 15 in the second start of his career. In his first start against The College of Idaho on Dec. 11, he assisted on four of Eastern’s first five baskets en route to a 17-4 lead. He finished the game with 12 points, a career-high six rebounds and five assists.
Robertson made 5-of-7 shots from the floor to finish with a career-high 15 points in his first game of the season versus Arizona, eclipsing his previous high of nine set as a freshman. He also had five rebounds, and drew the foul that disqualified Arizona 6-11 forward Jordan Brown from the game.
Robertson averaged in double figures for EWU at 11.1 points per game to rank 24th in the league overall, and was eighth in assists (3.0) and 11th in 3-pointers per game (1.52). In league games only, he was tops in the Big Sky in assist-to-turnover ratio (+2.94 with 47 assists and 16 turnovers) and seventh in assists (3.1). He averaged 10.9 points per game during Big Sky play.
Robertson played in 26 Eastern games a true freshman in 2019-20, averaging 8.1 minutes, 2.2 points and 1.4 rebounds per game. He scored a season-high eight points at Boston College and one game later had his high for rebounds with three at High Point. In a 68-64 victory at Northern Colorado in a battle for first place in the league standings, Robertson came off the bench to provide some of the defense on UNC’s Jonah Radebaugh, who needed 24 shots to score 21 points. In his career thus far, Robertson has played 49 games (six as a starter) and has averaged 6.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists while sinking 46-of-123 3-pointers for 37.4 percent.
Fellow sophomore Casson Rouse joined Robertson in making his season debut against Arizona on Dec. 5, and that duo combined for 28 points in the narrow three-point loss. They followed that with a combined 21 points at Oregon on Dec. 7. Rouse averaged 2.9 points and 1.1 assists in the 18 games he played this season, and made nine 3-pointers (in 38 attempts for 23.7 percent, 28.4 percent overall).
Rouse, who also didn’t play in EWU’s opener at Washington State, had 13 in his first game of the season against Arizona. He sank a trio of 3-pointers and had four assists to share team-high honors. Robertson and Rouse both hit 3-pointers in a 9-1 run as the Eagles took their biggest lead of the half at 56-48 with 8:42 remaining. In the next game, Robertson scored 11 points and Rouse had 10.
A year ago as a redshirt freshman, Rouse started seven games and chipped in 6.5 points and 1.7 assists while making 37-of-96 3-pointers (38.5 percent). He exceeded his previous career best by seven points when he scored 21 points in a 100-75 victory over Idaho State on March 5 to help EWU wrap-up at least a share of the Big Sky title. So far in his career, he’s played in 49 games (12 as a starter) and is averaging 5.2 points, 1.5 assists and 1.7 rebounds while sinking 46-of-134 3-point attempts (34.3 percent).
“Casson and Tyler are really good, and they are two reasons why I’m so high on this team,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans after the Arizona game. “We have a lot of depth on this team and we can call on a lot of players when we need to.”
Davison is MVP on Preseason All-Big Sky Team
Senior Jacob Davison was selected as the MVP as he joined teammate Kim Aiken Jr. on the 2020-21 Big Sky Conference Preseason All-Conference Team announced by the league office on Nov. 10. He was unanimous selection on the preseason squad. Davison earned second team honors in the 2019-20 season and Aiken was on the third team as they led Eastern to the regular season Big Sky Conference title.
“I love seeing our players receive accolades because I see all the hard work they put in behind the scenes to get there,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. “Both on and off the court, our guys work harder than any group I’ve ever been around, and I am so proud of all they have achieved, and eager for all that is to come.”
The Eastern duo was joined on the all-conference team by Bodie Hume of Northern Colorado, Jubrile Belo of Montana State, Cameron Shelton from Northern Arizona and Michael Steadman of Montana. Steadman is a 6-foot-10 transfer from San Jose State.
In the 2019-20 season, Davison was 70th nationally and fourth in the Big Sky in scoring (18.4), to go along with averages of 4.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. In league-only statistics, Davison was fourth in the league in scoring (n18.7), as well as ranking 11th in field goal percentage (.439), 10th in free throw percentage (.752), 12th in steals (1.2) and 14th in assists (2.7).
“A lot of times teams have to pick their poison with us,” said Legans. “Jacob is such a talented scorer and does so many things on offense which makes him hard to guard. He can drive, he can hit the mid-range jump shot and he shoots the three well. We watch the way teams defend him in games and then we adjust.”
Davison is Eastern’s newest member of the 1,000-point club, going over that mark with a 21-point effort versus Idaho on Feb. 13, 2020. He now has 1,365 career points to rank 10th on EWU’s all-time list of 1,000-point scorers, joining 2019-20 Big Sky MVP Mason Peatling as one of 23 in the club. After playing in his 100th Eastern game on Feb. 4, two days later Davison moved past Marc Axton into 11th on EWU’s all-time scoring list. Axton, who was the analyst for the television broadcast on SWX that day, had 1,319 points from 2002-05.
In his now 109-game career (68 as a starter), Davison has averaged 12.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.0 steals while sinking 44.5 percent of his shots from the field, 34.8 percent from the 3-point stripe (138-of-396) and 77.3 percent of his free throws. In his career, Davison now has 24 performances with at least 20 points (14 in the 2019-20 season and one in 2020-21) and five with at least 30 (three in the 2019-20 season and one in 2020-21).
In the 2020-21 season, Davison was 12th in the Big Sky in 3-pointers made per game (1.45) overall and seventh in league games only (1.85). He scored 31 versus Southern Utah on Jan. 16 when he hit nine 3-pointers to come one from the school record of 10. For the season, he averaged 9.8 points in the 22 games he’s played. He scored 18 points in EWU’s regular season finale versus Idaho State
Senior Jack Perry Continues Marksmanship from 3-Point Line
With more than 100 games of experience as an Eagle, so far this season senior Jack Perry has averaged 4.5 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game while sinking 22-of-44 3-point shots (.500) to equal the third-best mark in school history. He missed four games from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, but played in 20 games in 2020-21 (eight as a starter).
He ended the regular season on March 5 on “Senior Day” with 11 points, scoring in double figures for the first time this season. It was the first time he’s been in double figures in 25 games and the most since he scored 13 versus Northern Arizona on Feb. 22, 2020. He sank 3-of-4 3-pointers (4-of-6 overall) and equaled his career high with three steals, and matched his season-high of nine points in the first half alone.
In an 82-76 win at Northern Colorado on Jan. 23, he helped spark the Eagles in the second half with eight points as he sank both of the 3-pointers he attempted and had a team-high three steals in the game. He hit a key 3-pointer in the second half in a 93-77 win at Montana State on Feb. 11 to give EWU its largest lead of the night at 73-63.
He adds senior leadership in the back court after averaging 6.2 points and 2.5 assists during a junior campaign that was limited to 26 games because of a high ankle sprain. In league-only statistics in the 2019-20 season, Perry was 14th in assists (2.7) and 11th in 3-pointers made per game (1.7). He has also provided some clutch moments through the years for EWU, including the 100th 3-pointer of his career to give EWU the lead for good in a 78-75 victory at Idaho on Jan. 16, 2020.
Perry has played in 113 games (69 as a starter) to become just the 24th player in school history to hit the century mark (he now ranks 14th). He is currently 10th on EWU’s all-time career 3-point percentage list at 41.3 percent (150-of-363), and has averaged 5.5 points, 1.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game (total of 235) with 57 total steals.
Ellis Magnuson, a 31-Game Starter from a Year Ago, Makes Debut Versus Oregon
Ellis Magnuson started all 31 Eagle games as a true freshman in the 2019-20 season, but missed the first two games of his sophomore season because of the Covid-19 pandemic. He made his season debut versus Oregon on Dec. 7 and finished with two assists and no points in eight minutes of action. In 22 games in 2020-21, he averaged 15.7 minutes, 3.6 points, 1.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists. He had his first back-to-back double figure scoring games of the season with 15 at Idaho on Feb. 4 and 10 at home versus the Vandals two days later, then had his third in four games with 11 at Montana State on Feb. 13. His father, Josh, lettered as a linebacker at Idaho from 1991-93.
A year ago, Magnuson finished 118th in the nation in assists (4.2 to rank fifth in the Big Sky) and was 112th in assist-to-turnover ratio (+1.84 per game to rank fifth in the league). In Big Sky-only statistics, he was eighth in assists (3.4), and was the only freshman ranked in that category in the top 15. He was also the only freshman in the top 11 in assist-to-turnover ratio, ranking seventh (+1.5).
In his 53-game career (44 as a starter), Magnuson is averaging 3.3 assists, 4.9 points and 1.3 rebounds per game. He’s made 37.1 percent of his field goal attempts, including 28-of-91 (30.8 percent) from the 3-point arc. He’s also made 49-of-59 career free throws for 83.1 percent.
Recent Game Recaps
After Leading Most of the Way, 14th-Seeded Eagles Fall to Third-Seeded Jayhawks 93-84
The bluebloods of Kansas found out the Eagles were a handful. The 14th-seeded Eastern Washington University Eagles led more than they trailed, but lost to third-seeded Kansas 93-84 in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis, Ind, on March 20 at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. Junior Tanner Groves poured in a career-high 35 points for Eastern, while his younger brother Jacob Groves had career highs with 23 points and nine rebounds. Eastern led by 10 twice in the second half, but a game-deciding 25-7 stretch turned a six-point advantage into a 12-point deficit with five minutes to play. The Eagles led for 20:47 compared to 18:07 for the Jayhawks, who were ranked 12th nationally in the Associated Press top 25 poll entering the game. The Groves Bros combined for 58 points on 19-of-29 shooting a week after both were named to the All-Tournament team at the Big Sky Conference Tournament. They led EWU to the title and into EWU’s third NCAA Tournament, but EWU’s quest for the first victory by a No. 14 seed since 2016 and an attempt to end a 13-game losing streak in the tourney by the Big Sky came up short. Eastern out-shot Kansas 50 percent to 48 percent, and equaled the Jayhawks on the boards 33-33. The difference in the game was offensive rebounds (10 for Kansas, five for Eastern) and turnovers (13 for Eastern, six for Kansas). The result were advantages for KU of 13-2 in second-chance points and 12-7 in points off turnovers. Big Sky Conference MVP Tanner Groves made 11-of-18 shots from the floor, including 5-of-11 3-point attempts. He also sank 8-of-9 free throws and had five rebounds and three blocked shots. He finished his junior season with nine double-double to give him 11 in his career. Sophomore Jacob Groves had a career-high 23 points and equaled his high with nine rebounds. He had 16 of his points in the first half, and finished the game 8-of-11 from the field overall and 4-of-5 from 3-point range. He also had nine rebounds, a blocked shot, a steal and an assist. His previous career high was 21 versus Montana in the Big Sky Conference Tournament semifinals. First team All-Big Sky selection and Defensive Player of the Year Kim Aiken Jr. scored just two points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field, but he had six rebounds, two assists and a steal. Sophomore Michael Meadows, scored 12 points and had a career-high eight assists. He made 4-of-9 field goals and all four of his free throws. He scored in double figures in 12 of the last 13 games, and he eclipsed his previous high of five assists set two times previously. Sophomore Tyler Robertson, selected as the league’s Top Reserve, chipped in seven points, four rebounds and three assists. Senior Jacob Davison, the preseason Big Sky MVP, hit a 3-pointer early in the game and finished with three points, three rebounds and two assists. Eastern’s other senior, Jack Perry, had a pair of assists. With great enthusiasm and energy, Eastern jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead as they hit its first four shots and Kansas missed its first four. Tanner Groves scored the first basket, then Jacob Groves hit three-straight buckets to put EWU by nine just 1:41 into the game. But Kansas would gradually come back and take its first lead at 16-15 with 14:08 left, and built it to 23-17. Eastern trailed 28-22 when it made its big move. Eastern went on a 10-0 run, with 3-pointers provided by both Groves’ brothers and Meadows providing the other four points. Soon after that, back-to-back treys by the brothers put EWU up 41-33 with 2:40 to play. Eastern led by as many as nine on a 3-pointer by Tyler Robertson, and led 46-38 at intermission. Both Groves brothers had 16 points in the first half, as EWU out-shot Kansas 55 percent to 41 percent. Eastern continued to put the pressure on the Jayhawks in the second half, going up by 10 at the 19:00 mark on a basket by Meadows and with 17:58 left by Tanner Groves. The Eagles led 61-55 when KU went on an 11-2 run, with two baskets by Tanner Groves all EWU could muster in that stretch. The Jayhawks were 7-of-9 in that stretch while the Eagles could make just 2-of-7 as Kansas took a 66-63 lead with 7:58 left. Eastern tied it at 66 on a 3-pointer by Tanner Groves, but a 7-0 run soon after that gave the Jayhawks an 80-68 advantage with 4:59 to play. Kansas led by no less than seven the rest of the way and led the 8:46 of the game.
Eagles Beat Bobcats 65-55 to Win Big Sky Tournament Title!
The dream of a year ago was finally realized.
The second-seeded Eagles jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first half and went on to beat fifth-seeded Montana State 65-55 in the championship game of the Big Sky Conference Men’s Basketball Championship on March 13 at the Idaho Central Arena in Boise, Idaho.
“Our team did everything they needed to do to get to the NCAA Tournament,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans after a long and jubilant post-game celebration. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
The Eagles were playing in their third-straight league championship game, having lost to Montana in 2018 and 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 tournament when the Eagles entered as the No. 1 seed. Eastern now has a 3-6 record in the championship games, with previous tourney titles in 2004 and 2015 to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Runs of 12-0 and 7-2 in the first half helped ignite EWU to an early 29-9 advantage, and they eventually led by 14 at halftime. Eastern led by as many as 18 and no less than nine the rest of the way as EWU out-shot MSU 40 percent to 35 percent, and had a 35-32 rebounding advantage.
“We had to play one of our best defensive games to win this one,” said Legans. “They did a good job of slowing us down We were ready to go and excited for the moment. Our team took full advantage of what they needed to do.”
Sophomores Michael Meadows and Jacob Groves combined for 27 points, with Meadows finishing with 12 and Groves scoring 15. Juniors Tanner Groves and Kim Aiken Jr. were workhorses for EWU, with Groves finishing with a double-double with 14 points and 14 rebounds, and Aiken closing with nine points and 10 boards. Senior Jack Perry sparked Eastern with five early points and finished with nine.
Tanner Groves, the league MVP during the regular season, was named the tournament MVP as well. He was joined on the All-Tournament team by Jacob Groves.
The Eagles swept Montana State on the road during the regular season, beating the Bobcats 93-77 on Feb. 11 and then winning again 85-69 two days later. Eastern had previously played the Bobcats just once in the Big Sky Conference Tournament, a 90-84 victory in the 2019 quarterfinals.
A year ago, Eastern won the league title with a 16-4 mark and were the favorites win the league tourney title. But the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic ceased the season just a few hours prior to EWU taking the court for its Big Sky Tournament quarterfinal opener on March 12, 2020.
Eastern had another fast start, as Perry hit a 3-pointer to get EWU on the board first. Eastern would soon start at run, including a dunk by Aiken on a pass by Meadows to put EWU up 14-3.
That was part of a 12-0 Eagle run that ended with a basket by Meadows to give EWU a 20-3 lead with 12:17 to play. Eastern would eventually go on another mini-run of 7-2 and take its biggest lead of the night at 29-9 at the 7:52 mark.
Eastern hit 10 of its first 15 shots, but cooled off and finished the first half at 48 percent. Montana State was the opposite, making just 3-of-17 before finishing at 33 percent. Eastern led 38-24 at halftime.
The Eagles regained an 18-point bulge in the second half, and led by 17 with 14:13 remaining when MSU made a move. The Bobcats scored six-straight, then hit a 3-pointer to pull within 10 at 51-41 at the 9:19 mark. But that was the closest that MSU could get, as four-straight free throws by Tyler Robertson helped put the game away.
Eastern Emphatically Beat Montana 78-50 in Big Sky Semis
To be the cream of the crop, you have to beat the cream of the crop.
The second-seeded Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team did that emphatically as it opened an early 23-point lead and beat sixth-seeded Montana 78-50 in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference Men’s Basketball Championship at the Idaho Central Arena in Boise, Idaho.
Eastern had runs of 11-0 and 17-0 in the first half and opened a 29-point lead at halftime. Eastern allowed just 15 points in the first half, a low against the Eagles this season by seven. In the second half, The Eagles led by as many as 38 points and Montana came no closer than 28 after EWU went deep to the bench in the final eight minutes.
Sophomore Jacob Groves had a career-high 21 points for EWU, and his big brother, League MVP Tanner Groves, had 18. Each also had four rebounds and combined for seven assists as EWU assisted on 16-of-31 baskets after assisting on 17-of-22 in the quarterfinals. Eastern out-shot Montana 56 percent to 34 percent and out-rebounded the Grizzlies 40-25 in the dominating performance.
“Our team was ready and prepared to play,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. “Montana played tough and did everything they could to try to slow us down a bit, but our guys made some shots tonight and we played very good defense. When we are playing on all cylinders we are pretty good. We just have to make sure we have that same energy and intensity Saturday.”
Legans earlier this season called the Grizzlies the “cream of the crop” in the league. Montana, champions in the last two tournaments in 2018 and 2019 with victories in the title game over the Eagles, had won eight-straight conference tournament games.
“We really get up for the Montana Grizzlies because they are one of the teams in our league with great tradition along with Weber State,” Legans said. “You want to play your best basketball against the best teams and the best programs. We have a huge game tomorrow against Montana State. Coach Sprinkle has done a great job with his team and I know they’ll be prepared after beating Southern Utah. We have to be ready to go – we have a huge one and it will be a lot of fun.”
Montana had entered the game with a six-game winning streak overall. Last month, Eastern swept the Grizzlies by identical 90-76 scores on Feb. 18 in Cheney and Feb. 20 in Missoula, and the Grizzlies hadn’t lost since.
Eastern is now 9-4 in the semifinals, with previous tourney titles in 2004 and 2015 to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Eastern had entered Friday’s game 1-6 in the BSC Tournament against Montana, with the lone victory a 2015 championship game victory in Missoula. Eastern had lost to the Griz in both the 2018 and 2019 title tilts.
The Groves Bros scored the first 13 EWU points, and an 11-0 run opened a 13-3 lead for the Eagles. Montana made its first shot at the 19:09 mark, but missed its next eight shots and didn’t hit another field goal until the 11:52 mark – a total of 7:17 without a bucket.
Montana cut the lead to 2011, but then the Eagles exploded for a 17-0 run as Montana went another 5:55 without scoring. Five different Eagles scored in the run as EWU’s lead ballooned to 37-11 with 3:31 to play.
The Eagles led by as many as 29 on a 3-pointer by Ellis Magnuson with 2:17 to play, then took a 44-15 lead at intermission. Eastern out-shot UM 62 percent to 21 percent, and 23-8 on the boards. Tanner Groves scored 13 and his brother had nine in the first half.
It was much of the same earlier in the second half, as Tanner Groves scored EWU’s first seven points, then Jacob Groves scored six to give EWU a 38-point bulge at 57-19.
Teamwork Leads No. 2 Eagles Past No. 10 Lumberjacks 66-60
After all, it was two years since the Eagles played a tournament game in Boise.
The Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team had a slow start, but got untracked mid-way through the first half as the second-seeded Eagles beat Northern Arizona 66-60 in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference Men’s Basketball Championship at the Idaho Central Arena in Boise, Idaho.
The Eagles used balance and teamwork to get by the No. 10 seeded Lumberjacks, who had upset No. 7 Portland State the day before. Eastern assisted on 17 of its 22 baskets as four Eagles finished in double figures, including a double-double by league MVP Tanner Groves.
“It was our first tournament game in two years and there may have been some nerves involved,” said Eastern head coach Shantay Legans. “But I loved the way our team played and the way they played for each other. They gave a great effort.”
Eastern had an 8-of-9 shooting stretch in the first half to take the lead for good as Eastern picked up the first victory in its opportunity to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The five-minute stretch turned a five-point deficit into an eight-point advantage and EWU led by as many as 12 points in the first half and 11 in the second.
Eastern closed out the game by missing its last five field goals and one of its last nine, but the Eagle made 7-of-8 free throws in the final minute to secure the win. Eastern held NAU to 44 percent shooting, including just 4-of-19 from the 3-point stripe (21.1 percent). Eastern sank 8-of-29 3-pointers (28 percent).
Although Eastern had a season-low 18 points in the paint, the Eagles out-rebounded NAU 35-27 to improve to 9-0 when it out-rebounds an opponent and 9-1 when it allows 35 or less. The Eagles also improved to 7-1 when they have 36 or more boards. Eastern won its only previous game in the regular season versus NAU (80-64 on Dec. 19).
“We didn’t score the ball extremely well this game, but we did a good job of keeping them down,” said Legans. “We did a good job guarding the 3-point line. We did everything we could to win this game. It was fun and a great game to get out of the gate – the first one is always the hardest. We have to give NAU a lot of credit because they did a great job tonight.”
Besides the 15 points and 11 rebounds by Groves, sophomore Tyler Robertson, named the Big Sky’s Top Reserve, had a game-high 18. Junior Kim Aiken Jr., a first team All-Big Sky selection, had 12 points and eight rebounds with four 3-pointers, and sophomore Michael Meadows had 11 with five boards. Seven of the eight Eagles who played had assists, led by the five of Robertson and three each by senior Jacob Davison, senior Jack Perry and sophomore Ellis Magnuson.
In the early-going, Eastern had more turnovers (6) than shots (5), but the Lumberjacks were only able to forge a 6-5 lead because of a 2-of-10 shooting start. Meanwhile, EWU also struggled with a 2-of-9 shooting start and fell behind 10-5 before hitting a pair of shots to knot the game at 10.
That was part of a 10-2 Eagle spurt that put the Eagles up by three at the 8:48 mark. Eastern enjoyed an 8-of-9 shooting stretch that helped EWU open a 29-19 lead with 5:14 left on a 3-pointer by Davison to cap a run of eight-straight points.
Eastern eventually took its biggest lead at 32-20, and led at halftime 37-30. Eastern shot at a 48 percent clip, making 11 of its last 18 shots after a 2-of-9 start. Meadows scored all nine of his points in the hot stretch, in which EWU turned a 10-5 deficit into a 26-18 lead.
Robertson had 12 at intermission, and EWU led by 10 on four occasions and 11 twice through the first 12 minutes of the second half. A rebound basket by Tanner Groves not only gave him a double-double for the game, but also put EWU up 59-50 with 4:13 left. Eastern didn’t score again from the field, but iced the game by making 7-of-9 free throws in the final 59 seconds. Robertson sank four of them.
More Comments from Head Coach Shantay Legans . . .
On Giving Up Offensive Rebounds Versus Kansas: “Our first-shot defense was good, but they did a good job of getting offensive rebounds and putting them back in. That was the part that killed us. We did a good job of stopping them, but they would get offensive rebounds and baskets. Those are back-breaking plays. We have to make sure we play the game the right way and we didn’t in certain parts of the game. Again, we have to be proud of our team and everything they’ve accomplished.”
On Playing Big Schools: ‘We relish these games, but they are hard to win.”
On Beating Indiana in 2014 The Last Time EWU Was in the State: “We won a big game and got to go to Steak n’ Shake afterwards. We had a lot of guys who hadn’t been there, and it was my first time. We played great that game and it provided some great memories. Again, they call them bluebloods and Indiana is one of them. We are hoping to get the same experience and have the same kind of fun with Kansas.”
On Tournament Amidst a Pandemic: “This is one-of-a-kind and is exciting. Our players are excited and it’s something you’ll never forget. When I sit back and think about this, I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve handled this. It’s quite amazing to tell you the truth. They’ve handled it with great dignity and character, and they are incredible men who have handled the highs and the lows.”
On Experiencing the Tournament: “It’s an exciting time and the players are having a lot of fun with it. I played in it and remember it as a player. It’s something that is pretty cool. They are taking all the photos and videos they can and are looking forward to it.”
On Seniors in Regular Season Finale: “They had those kind of games in them. They earned that right and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do down the road. Now teams have to worry about Jacob Davison again. He came in and played the right way and did the right things – he defended and played well. We get excited when we see people play that way, and we get excited when they play tough like that. We all know how good Jacob can be. We want consistency from him on the defensive end, and he gave that to us today. He did a very good job, was battling and he was keeping guys in front of him. He’s another good defender we can put out there. There’s a reason why our defense was good, and he had a lot to do with it.”
On Win at Montana for Sweep: “We did everything we possibly could in the first half to make sure we weren’t forcing shots and weren’t taking bad shots. We took the right shot and everybody was there for one another. It was a fun game to coach and be a part of, and it’s always great to beat Montana.”
On First Sweep over UM Since 2003: “I didn’t hear that, but that is a long time I guess. There are a lot of things we are hearing lately, but we’re just happy our players go out there and handle their business. We just have to play our game and our team is doing that. The guys are excited and it’s a self-motivating game. They pretty much did the scout for this game and were ready to go.”
On Beating Montana in Cheney: “We came out hot and made some shots early. Their pressure really bothered us and we turned the ball over at a pretty high rate. But coming out and hitting those shots early really put us in a good spot for the rest of the game. They kicked our butts last year – twice, and even the last four times. Our team was excited to play this game, had intensity and were ready to go.”
On Inside/Outside Attack: “We have the best player in the league in Tanner Groves and nobody can slow him down or stop him. (In the second game against Montana) we kept throwing him the ball, and Kim and Mike stepped up to have terrific games. When you have players who can do things like that and change the game, it really helps. You can take away our 3-point shot, but we can throw the ball inside to Tanner and he’s efficient. Kim was driving the ball to the hole and Mike can get to the rim — Jacob Groves too. We have multiple players than can go make plays at the basket and lead this team.”
On Second MSU Victory: “Defense was what won us this game. Rebounding was the key – I thought we could stop them in certain ways, but they are a very good offensive rebounding team. Our goal was to hold them to eight offensive rebounds or under, and we did that. That was a key part to me. Getting out to that lead in the second half made me feel good. We hit some shots and spread them out, so we really used their pressure against them in the second half.”
On Record Free Throw Performance & First Win Over MSU: “We were struggling from the free throw line early this season, but we’ve seemed to hit a groove. Offensively our team did a very good job of moving the ball around. We had 15 assists but I thought we could have had 10 more because we missed some chippies. It was great having Mike (Meadows) coming out and playing the way he did, and we ended with three players with 20 points. We got to the free throw line and knocked them down. We knew what we needed to do offensively.”
On Having 11 Players Score in Feb. 6 Win Over Idaho: “We have multiple players getting a lot of baskets and shooting a lot of shots. The ball is getting moved around well — we had 19 assists which is huge. That means we are playing well and everybody is touching the ball. When you touch that basketball it makes you feel like you are really involved. We had players that didn’t have big scoring games against Idaho, but they contributed in other ways. When you get contributions like that from your team – especially from your leaders – it’s really good.”
On First Idaho Win: “We can play multiple styles of basketball, and that’s the best part about our team. We have players who can step up and we have players who can defend – they do a lot of different things to help us win games. Everybody wants to do great for themselves, but everybody wants to come together and win. That is something our leaders on our team really push. As we keep moving forward these guys keep understanding what we need to do to win.”
On Win Over Sac State on Feb. 1: “Our offense in the second half was amazing. We took it strong to the hole, and we had 46 points in the paint. We kept going after them and kept going after them. They had to pick one or the other in terms of defending us inside or outside – we ended up making some shots from everywhere. We had 47 bench points and that’s hard to guard when you have players coming off the bench doing that. That really helped us out and got us in the flow.”
On Scoring Inside the Paint: “That’s a huge key for us. We have some players who can really get into the paint and make some plays, and we’re finally doing that. When we are able to do that and get downhill, it makes the game that much easier. Tanner can score in any way, and Jacob Davison is hitting his threes and can drive it to the basket. Mike Meadows is driving it now, and Kim Aiken can too. We have a lot of threats out there and it puts us in a good position. When we can score that way it really helps us become an efficient team.”
On Rebounding: “Teams are going to try to out-physical us and try to pressure us. We have to be tougher and be able to drive the ball to the basket and make plays. We just have to be smart, because in certain situations we can make teams pay. We have some size, but if teams play us on the outside we’ll have inside position for rebounds. You have to really fight for them all the time because that is going to help us down the stretch. We have some size and quickness and we have to use that to our advantage.”
On Target on Their Backs as Preseason Picks: “We need to understand we are the guys being hunted now, and we have to have a different mentality for every game. We’ll get there because we have guys stepping up all over the place and they are giving us great contributions and great toughness. That’s what’s going to win games. We’ll always recruit players who can score, but we need to play tough, defend and rebound the ball well. When you do that and not give up easy baskets, you put yourself in a great position to win games.”
On Rebounding: “Rebounding is toughness. We have talent, but if you have toughness to go along with that talent you will win a lot of games. That’s what we did last year and that’s what we’ll do this year.”
On League-Opening NAU Win: “Sitting in the hotel and not doing anything for 50 hours and then coming out and playing that way was amazing. For this group of players it shows mental toughness. They were really excited to play this game. I couldn’t be happier to watch them get out and play. Everybody on the roster played and they deserved it. I was proud of their effort for what they had to go through. We tried to make it as normal as possible, but it’s not normal. We got punched in the mouth early because they were playing really good basketball. But our team battled through it and made all the right plays and took the easy baskets. When you shoot that well on the road, you have to be proud. Our players defended well and held them to 37 percent.”
On Depth: “We have a lot of depth, and we like to give players opportunities to see what they can do and see if they run with it. We have a lot of players, and we have to figure out who can get in there and do certain things and play roles. That’s the fun of coaching to figure that part out.”
COURTESY EASTERN WASHINGTON ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS