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Eagles upend Lumberjacks in Big Sky

CHENEY, Wash. -- Three times, Eastern Washington's Alvin
Snow has been one win away from the NCAA tournament. Three times,
he went home with a loss.

He would not be denied a fourth time.

Snow had 10 points and eight rebounds as Eastern Washington
earned its first trip to the NCAAs with a 71-59 victory over
Northern Arizona in the Big Sky Conference title game on Wednesday.

"For me, this is life at its peak," Snow, a senior guard,
said. "This is a dream come true, seriously."

Snow wore a basket net around his neck and was hoisted into the
air as Eastern fans swarmed onto the floor after the game.

Brendon Merritt scored 22 points and Marc Axton 19 for Eastern
Washington, which won its first tournament title of any kind since
moving up to Division 1 during the 1983-84 season.

The Eagles lost the Big Sky title game and automatic bid in each
of the previous three seasons, but this is the first time they
hosted the tournament.

The Eagles will join local rival and third-ranked Gonzaga in the
NCAA tournament, giving the Spokane, Wash., area two teams in the
event. Gonzaga coach Mark Few sat near the Eastern bench on
Wednesday, in support of coach Ray Giacoletti.

"This validates Eastern Washington, the university and the
community," Giacoletti said. "Anytime you do something the first
time it's something special."

Aaron Bond led Northern Arizona (15-14) with 20 points, while
Kelly Golob scored 14.

Northern Arizona jumped to a 33-29 halftime lead by shooting 65
percent (13-of-20) in the first half, while Eastern was making only
11 of 33 shots.

"There was no panic in that locker room," Snow said of
Eastern's halftime break. "We told each other we had to clamp down
defensively."

Axton opened the second half with a jump shot to launch a 13-1
run that lifted the Eagles to a 42-34 lead with 15:26 left.

Northern Arizona did not make a field goal in the second half
until Bond's 3-pointer with 14:47 left.

"We got some open looks in the second half, but we just
couldn't put anything down," said Chris Ferguson of Northern
Arizona. The Lumberjacks shot just 8-of-25 in the second half, for
32 percent.

"We missed a couple of shots and got tentative on shooting the
basketball," Northern Arizona coach Mike Adras said.

Eastern Washington was not exactly dominant on offense, making
only 38 percent of its shots and having 12 shots blocked. But
Axton, Merritt and Snow kept the Eagles in front after their
initial second-half surge.

Axton's 3-pointer made it 57-45 with 9:04 left. Golob's
3-pointer and layup allowed Northern Arizona to close to 61-52 with
seven unanswered points. But the Lumberjacks turned over the ball
their next two times downcourt and did not threaten again.

Merritt said the Eastern team did not dwell on the previous
title game losses.

"Everyone knew our past, how we got here three years in a row
and came up short," Merritt said. "Having the tournament at home
was huge."

The Big Sky tournament is awarded to the team that wins the
regular-season title.

Eastern Washington went 3-9 in the nonconference season,
including losses to Oklahoma, Washington, Iowa and Gonzaga. But the
Eagles won 11 straight league games to run away with the Big Sky
title at 11-3. Four teams finished tied for second with 7-7 league
records, including Northern Arizona. Eastern beat Northern Arizona
twice in the regular season.

Located in Cheney, a suburb 15 miles west of Spokane, Eastern
Washington has an enrollment of 9,100 and was the only one of four
Division I programs in the state never to appear in the NCAAs. The
starting lineup is made up exclusively of players from Washington.

Last year the Eagles made their first NIT appearance, losing at
Wyoming in the first round after a bus and plane trip delayed
several times by snowstorms.