Big Sky Tournament: Eastern Washington a win away from ending its 32-year NCAA Tournament drought

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BOISE – After Eastern Washington returned to the team’s hotel Wednesday night following its Big Sky Tournament semifinal upset of Northern Colorado, senior guard Violet Kapri Morrow’s prediction was affirmed when she turned on the television.

The sixth-seeded Eagles shocked the second-seeded Bears 59-57 when freshman Jessica McDowell-White purposely inbounded the ball off the backside of an unsuspecting Northern Colorado player in the final seconds, gathered up the ball under the basket and scored the winning bucket.

“That’s going to make ESPN,” Morrow said minutes after the heads-up play at CenturyLink Arena that sent EWU to its first Big Sky Tournament title game since 1988. EWU last won the tournament in 1987.

The play earned the No. 9 slot of the Top 10 plays on “SportsCenter.”

Longtime ESPN sportscaster Neil Everett – a Lewis and Clark High alum known for giving the Inland Northwest its share of shout-outs – was on the call.

“They’re partying in Cheney,” Everett said in his 16-second commentary on the play.

The upset-minded Eagles are one win away from the real party.

EWU (13-19) faces No. 4 seed Portland State (24-7) in Friday’s championship game. PSU upset cold-shooting No. 1 seed Idaho 75-59 on Wednesday.

The Vikings handled the Eagles twice by double-digit margins during the regular season in The Dam Cup rivalry series.

“We’re going to have to play a ‘dam’ good game to beat them,” joked longtime EWU women’s basketball coach Wendy Schuller.

“They whupped us twice in the regular season, so we gotta some find different ways to score. They held Idaho, the most explosive team in our league, to a low score, something I didn’t expect. We know we’re going to have our hands full.”

Idaho State cruised past EWU twice during the regular season, but that didn’t seem to matter in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.

Five days after No. 3 Idaho State handled the Eagles 74-45 in Cheney, EWU upset the Bengals 67-65 in overtime Tuesday.

On Monday, EWU beat No. 11 seed Weber State 81-74 in the first round of the tournament, two days after losing to the Wildcats in Cheney.

The Eagles played five games in seven days but were given a day of rest Thursday in Boise on the eve of the title game.

EWU split with Northern Colorado during the regular season. The Eagles were swept by Big Sky champion Idaho after a controversial winning shot was awarded to the Vandals in Cheney last month.

Schuller lauded her team’s fortitude for pushing through both a tough nonconference schedule – the Eagles faced Gonzaga, Oregon State, BYU, Boise State and Utah – and a 20-game parity-riddled conference slate

“I’m a big believer that God has a plan for all of us,” Schuller said. “We played a tough conference schedule, got our butts whupped and hung with some people.

“Part of the fight and relentlessness with this team is that we stood together.”

Morrow (18.3 points per game), a second-team All-Big Sky selection, and Uriah Howard, the league’s “Top Reserve,” have been key for EWU, which won six of its eight games in February when McDowell-White became healthy.

When McDowell-White played 6 minutes in a seven-game Big Sky stretch because of an injury, the Eagles went 2-5 and dropped in the standings. McDowell-White shares time with sure-handed senior Alissa Sealby, who has started all 32 games this season.

In tournament play, McDowell-White is averaging 13.3 points and nearly three assists. Fellow freshmen Grace Kirscher (9.6 ppg) and Bella Cravens (7.5 points, 6.6 rebounds) have also been big this week.

EWU, the league’s second-best 3-point shooting team, was held to a combined eight 3-pointers against Idaho State and Northern Colorado, but the Eagles manufactured tough points in the paint and key stops down the stretch.

EWU is also shooting an efficient 54 for 63 at the free-throw line in tournament play.

EWU dropped its last three semifinal appearances before breaking through for the first time in Schuller’s 18 seasons at EWU.

Morrow, a senior, expected it to happen earlier in her career.

“Every year I thought we could do it,” she said. “I’ll always choose us over anybody – especially us now.”

The last time the EWU women qualified for the NCAA Tournament (1987), Schuller was a high school basketball player in Southern California.

Back then, EWU and many current Big Sky members, including Montana and Idaho, played in the Mountain West Athletic Conference (MWAC), a league designated for women’s teams. The league dissolved after the 1988 season.

EWU appeared primed to end its NCAA Tournament drought in 2010 when the Eagles won the Big Sky regular-season title and hosted the tournament in Cheney. The Eagles were upset by No. 6 seed Montana State, which went on to lose to Portland State in the title game at Reese Court.

The Eagles have qualified for the Women’s NIT three times – 2010, 2013 and 2015 – and WBI (2017) in Schuller’s tenure, but never the Big Dance.

They’re ready to take the next step.

“We’ve been locked in since the start of this tournament,” McDowell-White said.

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