Big Sky men's basketball tournament

BIG SKY MEN’S TOURNEY CHAMPIONSHIP – Eastern Washington going dancing


BOISE, Idaho — Shantay Legans has established repute as one of the most bombastic characters in the Big Sky Conference.

The supreme court jester and confidence-instilling, energetically motivating head coach has his Eastern Washington Eagles cranked to the maximum enthusiasm at pretty much all times during any given game.

When Legans turned to his exuberant bench as his team was closing in on punching a ticket to the Big Dance, the feeling was different.

As the final seconds ticked away with second-seeded EWU in control against No. 5 Montana State, Legans took time to immerse himself in the moment, enrapturing himself within the embrace of his entire team.

Eastern Washington’s fourth-year head coach had guided the Eagles to the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship the last two times the event reached its completion, only to lose to rival Montana each time.

As Legans could feel the Eagles had a punched ticket to the Big Dance in hand, he pulled away from the scrum of his players, turned to the smattering of Eastern Washington fans on hand at Idaho Central Arena, passionately screamed to them, then twice more by himself before opening up his arms for another hug, this one with Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle.

The Eagles are going dancing for the first time since 2015 thanks to a lightning-fast start and a gritty finish to outlast the upstart Bobcats, 65-55, in the Big Sky Tournament championship game on Saturday night in Idaho’s capital city.

“As the clock was winding down, we had the two stop and the last two times here, me and Kim (Aiken, EWU all-league forward), watched Montana celebrate. We told ourselves we would be back here. I told him we would be here multiple times. The emotions were running through me and when I was giving the interview with ESPN, celebrating, I couldn’t be happier,” Legans said.

“It was one of the best moments of my basketball career watching these guys celebrate.”

Last season, EWU surged to a 16-4 mark in Big Sky Conference play to win the program’s first outright league regular-season title in 15 years. After losing consecutive championship games to Montana, EWU appeared primed to chase and earn the program’s third-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. Then the global pandemic hit.

Eastern Washington men’s basketball celebrates the Big Sky Conference title/by Brooks Nuanez

The Eagles were in the driver’s seat to repeat as regular-season champions and win the fourth Big Sky regular-season banner after a nine-game winning streak that included sweeping the Montana schools this winter. But EWU stubbed its toe the second to last game of the season, losing to Idaho State at home, a defeat that ultimately cost Eastern a banner and the top seed.

That misstep might’ve actually motivated the Eagles. EWU outlasted upstart No. 10 seed Northern Arizona on Thursday in the quarterfinals and decimated the Grizzlies 78-50 in a game that wasn’t even that close on Friday to earn a third straight league tournament championship game appearance.

Then came Saturday, a contest that at first looked like a coronation as EWU built 20-3 and 29-9 leads but then took significant fortitude to outlast a hungry, tough and athletic Bobcat team that did not give up despite falling behind early.

“To win this is very exciting, very emotional because you know you’ve been in this position before and not won,” said Aiken, a first-year All-Big Sky selection and the BSC Defensive Player of the Year. “We’ve been in this position twice. Tonight was an opportunity to go out there and prove we can be champions and go to the NCAA Tournament.”

Eastern Washington forward Jacob Groves (33) finishes at the rim vs. Montana State/by Brooks Nuanez

A year to the day after the sports world stopped turning, Eastern looked electric, driven and like a team of destiny in busting out to a 20-3 lead over a Bobcat squad that had upset Southern Utah, the tournament’s top seed, in overtime less than 24 hours before.

Eastern converted 11 of its first 18 field goal attempts and held a 20-point lead with eight minutes left in the first half. For a good portion of the first half, Saturday’s championship looked like a sequel to EWU’s ripping of Montana, a contest in which the Eagles led 44-15 at halftime before pushing the advantage to 38 points before calling off the dogs against the defending tournament champions.

“They are as good an offensive team as there is in a mid-major level,” MSU head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “They were hard for Arizona and St. Mary’s to stop, too. They’ve done a heck of a job recruiting and developing those guys.”

Instead, the Bobcats closed the first half by trailing 38-24, then continued to chip away. Amin Adamu, MSU’s senior southpaw guard who earned All-Tournament honors thanks in part to his 29 points and clutch steal against Southern Utah, suffered a knee to the thigh on the second possession of the game and never found any flow after, finishing with six points and zero rebounds.

When Jacob Groves, Tanner’s younger brother, hit a 3-pointer with 14:13 left to put EWU up 49-32, it appeared the route was on. But MSU answered with a 9-2 run capped by a Nick Gazelas 3-pointer — MSU shot 34.5 percent from the floor, including just 2-of-17 from beyond the arc — to get the deficit to 51-41 with 10 minutes left.

Montana State guard Mike Hood (12) shoots a baseline jumper vs. Eastern Washington/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State did not get the gap to single digits until a pair of Abdul Mohamed free throws with 4:41 left and it only stayed in single figures for one possession. But a team making its first championship game appearance in 12 years under a head coach navigating his first tournament in that role never quit.

“Eastern Washington is a really good team and they made big plays all night,” Sprinkle said. “Their pace, they didn’t look tired and we looked tired.

“They jumped us early and I credit our guys, we fought back. That was a game where a lot of teams get beat by 35.”

During Sprinkle’s career as a player, the Helena native earned Big Sky tournament MVP honors as a true freshman by shooting the Bobcats to their most recent NCAA Tournament appearance in 1996. During his playing career, Sprinkle contributed to five Big Sky Tournament victories. After he graduated in 1999, MSU won just three conference tournament games since.

In 2009, the Bobcats beat Montana in Missoula and upset Weber State before losing to host Portland State in the championship game. The only other postseason win for the Bobcats came two years ago here when the Bobcats beat bottom-seeded Idaho to snap a nearly decade-long tournament drought.

This week, Montana State showed newfound toughness in gutting out a 71-63 win over No. 4 Idaho State in the quarterfinals. Then the Bobcats employed tremendous resolve to gut out an 80-77 overtime victory over Southern Utah.

Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle yells on the bench/by Brooks Nuanez

“Coach Sprinkle does a great job with his team,” Legans added. “Second year in the league and he has his team in the league championship game. That’s great coaching.”

MSU looked shell-shocked for the first 10 minutes of the game Saturday before settling in. The resurgence within the game showed a reinvigorated sense of toughness by the Bobcats. MSU’s roster includes seniors Adamu, point guard Xavier Bishop, center Devin Kirby and swingman Abdul Mohamed.

On Twitter, Kirby said – “This season was a ride; I can’t begin to express how thankful I am for all your love and support this season. Thank you ALL for allowing me to represent your university in the Blue & Gold. These past five years have meant more to me than you know. Forever a Bobcat.”

Groves accentuated his Big Sky regular-season MVP with a tournament most valuable player honor. He averaged 15.6 points and 10 rebounds per game during the tournament to lead his team to a ticket.

Groves and his brother, Jacob, each earned All-Tournament honors.

“It’s unbelievable, something brothers dream about,” Groves said. “Since Jake and I were little, we always dreamed playing on the biggest stage of college basketball and to do it together, it’s unbelievable.”

Eastern Washington brothers Jacob and Tanner Groves/by Brooks Nuanez

The Eagles now turn their attention to next week’s NCAA Tournament. As of March 10, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected Eastern Washington as a No. 14 seed.

“When I turned, I told them I loved them,” Legans said. “We’ve spent so much time together. I get on these guys but they know it’s out of love. It’s so much of a family with us.

“I have friends in the business that have never played in the NCAA Tournament. These guys on my team, they’ve advanced to the championship game every year. But I want to keep saying it – you can say this, this and this, ‘we will get to it next year’, but some coaches, most coaches, most players, they never get there. Now we are going. When I saw how happy they were, that made my day.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

2021 Big Sky Conference Champion Eastern Washington Eagles/by Brooks Nuanez
Eastern Washington guard Michael Meadows finishes at the rim vs. Montana State/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State forward Jubrile Belo (13) dunks vs. Eastern Washington/by Brooks Nuanez
Eastern Washington guard Jacob Davidson drives through contact vs. Montana State/by Brooks Nuanez
Eastern Washington guard Jack Perry (11) in transition vs. Montana State/by Brooks Nuanez
Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans cuts down the nets/by Brooks Nuanez
Eastern Washington forward Tanner Groves celebrates after winning the Big Sky title/by Brooks Nuanez
/by Brooks Nuanez
/by Brooks Nuanez
/by Brooks Nuanez
/by Brooks Nuanez
/by Brooks Nuanez
/by Brooks Nuanez
/by Brooks Nuanez

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

Recommended for you