NCAA Tournament

Eastern Washington battles Kansas, comes up short in NCAA Tournament


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, Saturday (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. Eastern’s Covid-19 impacted season ended with a 16-8 record overall.

“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 Eastern head coach Shantay 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.”

Eastern Washington forwards Jacob Groves (33) and Tanner Groves (35) battle for a rebound vs. Montana in the Big Sky Conference Tournament/by Brooks Nuanez

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.

“It’s an unbelievable stage and it’s great for them because they are terrific humans. It is fun to coach them and see them end the season on a high note,” said Legans.

“Even though we didn’t win, they played great basketball. You’d have to search to find two brothers to ever both get over 20 (pts) 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.”

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. “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.”

Kansas will play the winner of the No. 6 USC versus No. 11 Drake game which followed EWU’s contest. USC is now 22-7 and Drake is 26-4. The second-round game will be played on Monday, March 22 at a time and venue to be announced. The game will be broadcast by either CBS, TBS, TNT or Tru TV.

Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans working the side during the 2021 Big Sky Conference Championship game/by Brooks Nuanez

Eastern was making its third NCAA Tournament appearance, and is now 0-3 in opening round games. The first 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.

The Eagles 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.

“We’ll come back stronger, come back smarter and come back hungrier. We have the ingredients, but we just have to come back and do it better. 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. 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.”

Press release courtesy of Dave Cook – Eastern Washington Sports Information. Photos courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics. All Rights Reserved.

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