Two Big Sky entities laid firmer claim to frontrunner status on New Year's Day: Tyler Harvey and Eastern Washington.
After trailing by 8 points with just under 8 minutes to play, the Eagles held Weber State nearly without a field goal for the final six minutes of the game, and Harvey shot Eastern to an 84-78 victory in Cheney, Washington to start Big Sky play. Weber's only points in the final six minutes were a three-pointer when down seven with seven seconds left.
Harvey finished with 39 points on a blistering 7-of-10 performance from three and 12-of-19 overall, and is the easy leader for conference player of the year as league play begins. Harvey is averaging 23.9 points per game (which leads the country) on 52.6% from the field, which includes a red-hot 51.2% from deep.
The Wildcats took control midway through the second half. After Kyndahl Hill and Jeremy Senglin dropped in three-pointers, a fastbreak lay-in from Richaud Gittens gave Weber a 62-54 lead with 10:51 left. Eastern would chip away over the next six minutes, but more threes from Ryan Richardson and Chris Golden would push Weber's lead back to eight.
That three from Golden came with 5:57 left, however, and was nearly the Wildcats' final field goal of the game.
Harvey scored 10 of his 39 in the final five minutes, comprised of a pair of three-pointers and two perfect trips to the line. Drew Brandon, the hero in Eastern's big win at Indiana, would ice the game by picking off a careless Senglin pass at midcourt and dunking it home, giving the Eagles a four point lead with a minute left.
Eastern Washington had what was clearly the best non-conference campaign in the Big Sky, and knocking off the reigning champion to open conference play puts all eyes on the Eagles as the Big Sky moves forward. EWU certainly has the firepower to win the conference.
Weber's field goal drought down the stretch is nothing new. It's something the Wildcats have done multiple times -- on the road, at least -- including to blow an 18-point halftime lead at Utah State and to at one point trail Oklahoma 42-4.
What did surprise me, however, was Weber's scoring up to that six-minute mark. Early indications would have indicated the Wildcats' chance at keeping up with the high-scoring Eagles would be small, but Randy Rahe's crew responded. If Weber State's offense is actually turning a corner, there may be hope still for the new-look Wildcats.
There is a lot of basketball left to play, of course. (The Big Sky plays 18 conference games now.) After all, last season saw Northern Colorado lay waste to Weber State in Greeley early in the conference campaign after UNCo looked to be the most impressive team in non-conference play. Weber would go on to host and win the conference tournament, while Northern Colorado finished fifth.
But as of now, Eastern looks every bit a contender and Tyler Harvey is a star. We'll see if Weber can turn a corner offensively.
IDAHO 77, IDAHO STATE 54
Idaho has looked like another team who could be a contender, and the Vandals faced in-state rival Idaho State in their first Big Sky game since 1996. Connor Hill will likely stay stride for stride with Harvey in the best shooter conversation, as Hill went 8-for-13 from behind the arc on the way to 32 points in the Vandals win.
MONTANA 66, NORTHERN COLORADO 48
Montana may be more capable than originally expected, though has looked offensively challenged often. The Griz shut down Northern Colorado thanks to 24 points from their usual best option, Jordan Gregory. Big man Martin Breunig added 18 points and pulled down 9 rebounds, a stat line you can probably copy-paste for the remaining 17 Big Sky games.
SACRAMENTO STATE 78, NORTHERN ARIZONA 73
It was another early intriguing battle like Weber-EWU in Sacramento, as two teams expected in preseason polls to challenge for the conference crown squared off. Northern Arizona won and lost the same battle, earning a whopping 38 trips to the free-throw line but converting only 25. Sacramento State made up for the free-throw disparity by shooting 26-of-51 and 9-of-13 from deep, led by Dylan Garrity who went 5-of-7 from three and netted 26 points for the Hornets.
PORTLAND STATE 71, SOUTHERN UTAH 68
DaShaun Wiggins and the Vikings overcame an atrocious night from the field (1-of-10 for Wiggins, 19-of-51 for the team) at the free-throw line. After a jumper from Casey Oliverson helped SUU cut PSU's lead to 64-63 with 2:50 left, the Vikings would shoot 7-of-10 from the stripe (with no field goals) to hold off the improving Thunderbirds. Wiggins earned 16 foul shots, converting 10.
NORTH DAKOTA 67, MONTANA STATE 60
Quinton Hooker scored 16 and Carson Shanks added 12 in 21 minutes to help UND earn a road win at Montana State. Michael Dison scored 22 with six rebounds in the loss for the Bobcats.