Vikings Hold Off Yellowjackets To Reach Finals
GNAC Defensive Player of the Year Avery Dykstra and Western Washington held MSUB to 32 percent shooting and 11 percent from three in WWU's semifinal win. Photo by Ron Smith.
GNAC Defensive Player of the Year Avery Dykstra and Western Washington held MSUB to 32 percent shooting and 11 percent from three in WWU's semifinal win. Photo by Ron Smith.

Friday, March 4, 2022

LACEY, Wash. – Top-seeded Western Washington is what good teams are and should be: cool under pressure.

Time and time again, No. 5 seed Montana State Billings made runs of gritty baskets to close a WWU lead down to within a handful of points, but time and time again the Vikings answered with a run of their own to reestablish the distance. The end result was a 69-63 victory over the Yellowjackets in the GNAC Women’s Basketball Championships semifinals, setting up a date with No. 3 seed Central Washington in tomorrow’s final at 5:00 p.m.

Emma Duff struggled for three quarters but carried the team in the fourth, ending as the Vikings’ leading scorer with 15 points. Brooke Walling had a banner night with 14 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and tenacious defense on MSUB star Taryn Shelley. The Vikings’ defense, their calling card for most of the season, dominated as a whole. The Yellowjackets shot just 32 percent from the field and 11 percent from three, and the Vikings tallied more steals and blocks as a team than MSUB did.

Western Washington (20-4) returns to the GNAC Championships final, where they lost in 2020 to Alaska Anchorage. Montana State Billings (17-12) is out of the conference tournament. The Yellowjackets were not listed in the NCAA’s most recent regional rankings, so MSUB will have to hold its breath until Sunday to see if its quarterfinal win over No. 7 regionally-ranked Northwest Nazarene is enough to vault them into the postseason bid conversation.

In contrast to the utter chaos of the men’s bracket, the women’s final will feature the conference’s two highest regionally-ranked teams entering the tournament, with the Vikings second and CWU fourth on the NCAA’s most recent list.

Western Washington dominated the first quarter, and it turned out they would need every bit of that cushion. The Vikings were up 15-6 after the first ten minutes and pushed the lead to 25-10 on a Gracie Castenada layup with six minutes to play in the first half. Montana State Billings showed a sneak peek of its resiliency by closing the first half with an 11-0 run that featured two mid-range jumpers from Shelley and three points from Dyauni Boyce. The Vikings halted the run with two Castenada free throws right before the half to make it 27-21 Vikings at the break.

Western Washington never trailed in this contest, but the game was much closer than that statistic makes it appear. The second half was a seesaw of runs that saw WWU push the lead to double digits before MSUB cut it to one or two possessions.

The Vikings took their largest lead of the game with 8:18 left in the fourth when Mollie Olson blew past a Billings defender with a dribble move and got the layup plus the foul and the free throw. Carley Zaragoza got a steal on the ensuing possession and fed Riley Dykstra for a jump shot and the Vikings were up by 15, 53-38.

But the Yellowjackets answered right back with a 9-0 run, kickstarted by Cariann Kunkel hitting MSUB’s first three-pointer of the game with eight minutes left. The Yellowjackets previously missed their opening 13 attempts from beyond the arc. Kunkel led all scorers with 18 points on 6 of 16 shooting. Shelley had 13 points while Aspen Giese finished with 12 for the ‘Jackets.

Duff went to work in the fourth to put the game away. In foul trouble for most of the night, Duff had only five points through three quarters but scored 10 in the fourth, going 8 of 10 from the free-throw line in the final period.