Two schools could be playing in the most important game in their programs' histories Thursday night, and it will happen against each other.
The Eastern Washington Eagles (18-5, 9-1 Big Sky) host the Sacramento State Hornets (16-6, 10-1) in Cheney, Wash. at 9:05 pm ET for a battle to claim first place in the Big Sky Conference. Even though Sacramento State is already 2-0 this season in games played for sole possession of first place, this contest is far from just a first-place battle.
Sacramento State is in the midst of its best season in its Division-I history, which began in 1991 according to Sports-Reference. At 16-6 and with seven regular-season games remaining, the Hornets have already posted the most single-season wins in its D-I history.
There's something else you'll notice if you look at Sac State's S-R page as linked. Nowhere will you find the bold R or T next to any year indicating a regular-season or conference tournament championship, and the NCAA Tournament column is 100% empty. Not only that, but this is the latest in the season the Hornets have ever been in first place in the Big Sky.
A win for Sacramento State would mean a one-game lead over Eastern Washington with the all-important head-to-head tie breaker, having bested the Eagles at home on Jan. 17. Functionally, that's a two-game lead with six remaining. Sure, it wouldn't guarantee anything, but it's easy to see how far that goes in helping Sac State claim its first-ever D-I conference title.
Eastern Washington has only tripped to the NCAA Tournament once, when the 2004 Eagles won both the regular-season and tournament titles. Since 2004? EWU has posted an overall record over .500 only once in the last 10 seasons, and it was a 15-14 mark at that. A win could propel Jim Hayford and company to an all-time season.
The Eagles put the nation on notice with their road win at Indiana and have continued to deliver, even with injuries to their two best players. The nation's leading scorer, Tyler Harvey, suffered a quad contusion against Idaho on Jan. 31 and left the game with 7:31 remaining. The Eagles gutted out an OT victory without him, then won road games against Montana and Montana State where the left-handed Jimmer didn't even travel with the team.
The week prior to the Idaho contest, talented Eastern big man Venky Jois missed two home games. The Eagles cruised to wins over Northern Colorado (95-85) and North Dakota (102-80) without his 17 point, 7 rebound, 2.6 block per-game averages. Eastern Washington has a bevy of young bench talent that has filled in very well, especially Ognjen Miljkovic and Bogdan Bliznyuk.
Both teams are proficient offensively, to say the least. Both are top-4 nationally in team three-point percentage (Sac State third at 41.7%, Eastern fourth at 41.5%) and top-13 in overall field goal percentage (Sac State eighth at 49.3%, Eastern 13th at 48.8%).
Both teams have guards who can go off at any moment. Harvey is obviously one, being the nation's leading scorer. Mikh McKinney is the other, who has a 27-point half on his resume this season. Both are shooting over 50% from the field (McKinney 54.1%, Harvey 50.5%) -- ridiculous for guards. Dylan Garrity is a cool-headed, hot-handed shooter for Sac State, currently making threes at a 44.6% clip.
The last time the teams met, the Hornets shot a D-I era program best from the field, blistering the nets on 31-of-49 shooting (63.3%). Against North Dakota, the Eagles raced to 67 (sixty-seven!) points in the second half.
The game should be high scoring, fun, and will have a huge impact on which program can convert an all-time best start into an all-time best finish.
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(One of the awesome things about the Big Sky is the free availability of its games. You can watch this game by downloading the Watch Big Sky app or online at Watch Big Sky. If you watch on a computer, make sure to follow the link to sign up for a free account, and also the instructions on the sidebar for installing necessary plug ins.)