'Your dreams aren't too big': Eastern Washington women reach first NCAA Tournament since 1987 (2024)

BOISE— Maybe the weight of history was never going to be too much to bear for the Eastern Washington Eagles because they simply couldn’t fathom it.

Not since 1987 had the Eagle women found their way to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, so the delirium amid the confetti shower and the net-cutting Wednesday afternoon seemed amped to a higher degree.

“This is huge, this is awesome,” said EWU senior Jacinta Buckley. “What did you say, 1997?”

No, 1987.

“Eighty?” she said, perhaps not grasping there was human life that far back. “Thirty-seven years? That’s older than my sister.”

Better, then, to live in the moment, and the Eagles put together a remarkable one in overcoming Northern Arizona 73-64 in the title game of Big Sky Conference Basketball Championships at Idaho Central Arena.

The Eagles (29-5) can now enjoy the glow until Sunday, when they’ll learn their site, seeding and opponent for the NCAAs.

“Incredible,” said Buckley, whose 20 points and 11 rebounds powered Eastern’s comeback. “I want to say that I can’t believe it— but I definitely can.”

The Eagles weren’t even in the Big Sky the last time they reached this point— playing in the old Mountain West Athletic Conference before women’s sports had come under the Big Sky banner. Coach Joddie Gleason was still a high school junior in Colusa, California. Swoop the mascot wouldn’t be known by that name for another 17 years.

And for a quarter and a half on Wednesday, it seemed the end to this long wait might have to be deferred.

NAU, the league runner-up that lost to Eastern by 25 points in their last meeting, simply carved up the Eagles’ proud defense from the jump, driving to the hoop with impunity. The Lumberjacks were shooting 56 percent and had a 28-17 lead— and confidence.

“We don’t love getting behind to start,” said Gleason, “but it’s something we’ve kind of been doing and we’re used to it.”

And they have a little attitude to cope with it.

“It makes the game more fun and interesting,” point guard Jamie Loera said with her trademark playfulness. “I’m sure the crowd loves it. But I’m proud we’re able to fight through those moments.

“You’d like to have better starts— but we have great finishes.”

This finish was a long time in the making. Jump-started by two tough buckets by Buckley, the Eagles got back to within 33-32 at halftime, then had to do it all over again in the third quarter until Loera’s driving layup right before the horn knotted it at 48.

Not until Jaleesa Lawrence’s putback 45 seconds into the fourth quarter did EWU get ahead— and then Buckley’s three-point play three minutes later gave them the lead for good.

The defense that didn’t show up that first quarter eventually forced 20 NAU turnovers— while Eastern went the entire fourth quarter without one— and squeezed the Lumberjacks into 28 percent shooting after that hot start. When Buckley found Jaydia Martin with a cross-court pass for a 3-pointer in the final minute, the celebration could begin.

And the Eagles did that at a championship level, too.

“Usually on teams— even if they’re the best team ever— there are people who aren’t super bought-in or don’t have that sense of camaraderie,” said Lawrence. “We’re completely into this— not just to win but to be there for each other.”

Loera struggled a bit with her shot early, but still had 11 points to go with her usual chock-full stat line— five assists, two steals and even four blocked shots— to earn tournament MVP honors. Buckley was also an easy pick for the all-tournament team, while Lawrence (15 points), Aaliyah Alexander (12) and Martin (11) all reached double figures. Sophie Glancey led three Jacks in double figures with 15 points — but none of them had more than two in the decisive quarter.

“Effort is the one thing you can always control and we talk about that a lot,” said Buckley. “Last night, we did a meditation talk with our strength coach and each of us talked about how effort was the one thing we didn’t want to regret in this game — giving 100 percent of what we had, whether it was on the bench cheering or diving for loose balls and ripping down rebounds. That is the biggest part of the game.”

For all the Eagles have achieved this season— the regular-season and tournament titles, a school record 29 wins and winning streaks of 10 and now 12 games— Gleason said it wasn’t accomplished with an eye toward history.

“We just come to work and love to compete,” she said. “We just try to stack wins. We try to go 1-0, 1-0 and then eventually they stack. We haven’t really thought about the bigger picture.”

But the Eagles can now.

“Your dreams,” said Buckley, “aren’t too big.”

'Your dreams aren't too big': Eastern Washington women reach first NCAA Tournament since 1987 (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg Kuvalis

Last Updated:

Views: 6770

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (75 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg Kuvalis

Birthday: 1996-12-20

Address: 53157 Trantow Inlet, Townemouth, FL 92564-0267

Phone: +68218650356656

Job: IT Representative

Hobby: Knitting, Amateur radio, Skiing, Running, Mountain biking, Slacklining, Electronics

Introduction: My name is Greg Kuvalis, I am a witty, spotless, beautiful, charming, delightful, thankful, beautiful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.