EVERETT, Wash. — Heading into the Northwest Athletic Conference Championships that began here Saturday, Walla Walla women’s basketball coach Bobbi Hazeltine was concerned with her team’s inability to get to the free-throw line.
It was a point of emphasis in practice the week leading up to the tournament, and so far it has paid off handsomely.
After sinking 10-of-12 free throws in Saturday’s 74-63 opening-round victory over Clackamas, the Warriors knocked down 16-of-21 freebies here Sunday, including some clutch shots in the closing seconds as WWCC held off West Region champion Lower Columbia for a 63-57 quarterfinal victory.
Sophomore Kate Ferenz made 1-of-2 free throws with 16 seconds to play for a 61-57 Warriors lead. And after the Red Devils misfired on a 3-point shot at the other end, WWCC freshman Jade Skidmore was fouled and sank two more free throws to seal the deal with five seconds on the clock.
It was Walla Walla’s 10th consecutive victory and sends the East Region’s No. 2 seed into the NWAC semifinals here Saturday against North Region champion Skagit Valley. The Cardinals hiked their season record to 24-6 Sunday with a 65-58 victory over Columbia Basin College, the East Region’s No. 3 seed.
In the other half of the bracket, South Region champion Umpqua dispatched Peninsula 85-58 and Spokane, the East Region’s top seed, ousted Bellevue 76-62. The Timberwomen and Sasquatch will tangle in Saturday’s other semifinal game.
The Warriors, who won 14 of their final 15 regular-season games and actually tied Spokane for the East Region championship, are now 23-4 for the year. Spokane got the region’s top seed based on a preseason tiebreaker.
“It’s us and three No. 1 seeds,” Hazeltine said of the four tournament semifinalists. “We are just thrilled to have made it to the final four. I really didn’t think we would be turning around and going back to Everett. It’s kind of a dream come true.”
The Warriors, who made 14 consecutive appearances in the NWAC Championships before failing to qualify in 2016, are in the semifinals for the first time since 2012, when they lost to eventual champion Yakima 59-47. WWCC is in search of its third NWAC title under Hazeltine’s leadership.
Saturday’s quarterfinal affair was close throughout, with neither team ever leading by more than six points, Hazeltine said.
The Warriors led 11-6 at the end of the first quarter and the Red Devils were up 21-19 at the intermission. Walla Walla regained the upper hand 37-36 after three quarters and then held off the Red Devils over the final 10 minutes.
“None of these kids has ever played in this tournament, but they played like they had, acted like they had,” Hazeltine said. “They played like they had a lot of experience. Nobody folded down the stretch and it was really fun.”
Freshman Cierra Jo McKeown was, as she has all season, an offensive force for the Warriors. She connected on 10 of her 21 shots from the floor and was 6-for-7 from the line for a game-high 29 points.
McKeown made all three of her 3-point baskets in the second half after the Warriors went 0-for-8 from 3-point distance in the first half.
Sophomore post Cheyan James came off the bench and was WWCC’s only other double-figure scorer with 11 points. Ferenz chipped in with nine points, Skidmore tallied six points and hauled down a game-high nine rebounds, and Emily Hancock and reserve guard Kortney Hutchinson added four points each.
Madison Lord led Lower Columbia with 19 points and six rebounds. Faye Chartraw and Madison Hinrichs added 13 points each for the Red Devils, who finished their season at 27-4.
Hazeltine gave her players today off while she and her assistant coaches studied game films of Skagit Valley.
“I can honestly say that I don’t know that much about them,” the coach said. “But they will be challenge enough.
“Our kids are so excited. I don’t know if they expected this, but here we are.”