KENNEWICK — Walla Walla wiped out a 15-point second-half deficit for the third consecutive game here Saturday morning during the opening round of the Northwest Athletic Conference Championships women’s basketball tournament.
But unlike their victories over Blue Mountain and Columbia Basin to conclude the regular season, the Warriors were unable to finish off Clark Saturday in the Toyota Center as the Penguins regrouped and pulled out a 61-60 victory.
It was a disturbing defeat for Warriors coach Bobbi Hazeltine and her team, which entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed from the Eastern Region and one of the favorites to take home the championship trophy. Clark, on the other hand, was the fourth seed from the West Region and a decided underdog.
On paper, anyway.
But the Penguins played like anything but underdogs at the outset as they hit their first two field-goal attempts, nine of their first 11 and stormed to a 31-12 lead 12 minutes into the game.
Walla Walla closed to within 37-21 at the intermission, found itself trailing by 15 points, 41-26, early in the second half and then began a methodical comeback. Courtney Davis’ 3-pointer gave the Warriors a 55-54 lead with 6:03 on the clock and Kennedy Corrigan answered a Clark basket with a left-handed drive for a 57-56 WWCC lead at the 5:24 mark.
But the Penguins’ Michaela Bitanga scored a layin and Bryn Tennyson stroked a dagger 3 as Clark moved to a 61-57 lead with 59 seconds to play. Though they had their chances, it was more than the Warriors could overcome.
“Clark’s a quality team,” Hazeltine said. “They’ve got a good post player, a good point guard and a couple of shooters. They are a very good four seed.
“I thought we played hard,” Hazeltine said. “It wasn’t from lack of effort. But the Clark kids came out and hit their 3s, and our kids didn’t.”
The Penguins drained 9-of-16 3-point attempts — five of them coming during their first-half blitz — for a sizzling 56 percent. The Warriors, on the other hand, fired up 30 3-pointers and connected on just six for an icy 20 percent.
WWCC shot 13 percent from 3-point distance and 28 percent overall in the first half.
“You half to realize that what you do in the first half counts the same as what you do in the second half,” Hazeltine said “A missed basket in the first half is just as important as it is late in the game.
“We’ve had some great comebacks this season, and this was one of them. We had a lot of chances at the end today, and we blew those chances.”
After Tennyson’s 3-pointer made it a two-possession game, Courtney Davis worked herself free inside for a bucket that halved the Penguins’ lead to 61-59 with 34 seconds remaining. The Warriors then forced a turnover, Corrigan drew a foul and went to the free-throw line for two shots with 27.8 seconds left.
The freshman point guard’s first free throw fell off the front rim but she connected on the second and Clark’s lead was down to a single point.
WWCC’s Karli McHone then gave her team one final opportunity when she forced a tie-up with the possession arrow in the Warriors’ favor with 13.9 seconds remaining. Courtney Davis and Corrigan both put up shots in the paint, but neither fell and Bitanga rebounded and was fouled with one second to play.
Bitanga missed the front end of her one-and-one trip to the line, but for the Warriors it was too late.
Corrigan finished with 20 points to lead all scorers and Nygaard added 14 points and seven rebounds.
“I thought Bailey played well overall,” Hazeltine said of Nygaard. “And we wouldn’t have been in the game if it wasn’t for Kennedy Corrigan, even though things didn’t go her way at the end.”
Bitanga and muscular post Alexa Orcutt scored 16 points each for Clark and Tennyson and Taylor Howlett added 10 points each.
Walla Walla dominated the backboards 51-36. Courtney Davis had nine rebounds and Paige Vincent eight for WWCC while Newsom led Clark with seven.
The bitter defeat drops the Warriors, now 21-6, into a loser-out game this morning at 8 against Bellevue, the No. 2 seed from the North Region. The Bulldogs were upset Saturday morning by South Region No. 3 seed Southwest Oregon 70-69.
“It’s a challenge,” Hazeltine said. “We’ve never been in this situation, playing a consolation game so early in the day. It’s going to be a real character builder for us and Bellevue.”