Vikings Cool Blazers, Advance To Final Four
Emma Duff scored 10 points to help lead Western Washington women's basketball to their third Final Four in program history. Photo by Michael Wade.
Emma Duff scored 10 points to help lead Western Washington women's basketball to their third Final Four in program history. Photo by Michael Wade.

Monday, March 21, 2022

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Western Washington has hung its hat on defense all season long. So when the Vikings met an opponent with the same identity, it promised to be a battle.

It seemed like No. 4 Valdosta State had the No. 5-seeded Vikings right where they wanted them, opening up a 13-1 lead in the game’s first three minutes for the Blazers’ fourth-ranked defense to protect. But after the Vikings rallied and got a small lead of their own at the end of the game, they got to prove their own defensive mettle with the game on the line.

GNAC Defensive Player of the Year Avery Dykstra forced a travel with suffocating defense before junior guard Mollie Olson came up with a steal on the game’s final possession to help Western Washington hang on to a 58-55 victory over Valdosta State in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships at the Birmingham Crossplex.

The Vikings (25-4) advance to their third Final Four in school history and first since 2013, where they will meet No. 1 North Georgia on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.

Sophomore center Brooke Walling continued her red-hot postseason with a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double with Olson (11 points) senior guard Emma Duff (10) and GNAC Freshman of the Year Riley Dykstra (10) joining her in double figures. Riley Dykstra came up with the dagger of the night with a three-pointer with 51 seconds left that gave Western Washington a four-point lead, its largest of the game.

The Vikings scored 58 points on Valdosta State, which entered the game giving up 52.9 points per game, the fourth-lowest total in Division II. In the key stat of the night, the Blazers entered the game ranked 13th in Division II with a +8.2 rebound margin, but the Vikings (+8.4, 11th in Division II) dominated on the glass, outrebounding VSU 39-26 and turning what looked to be a key battle into a one-sided affair.

Western Washington came away with the win despite having close to the worst possible start to the game. The Vikings missed four field goals and turned the ball over four times in the game’s first three minutes as the Blazers opened up a 13-1 lead before WWU called timeout with 4:51 left in the first. The timeout seemed to settle the Vikings’ nerves, as a Riley Dykstra layup and Olson three-pointer gave WWU its first two field goals and cut the deficit to 15-6.

After exiting the first quarter down only seven with a 19-12 VSU lead, the Vikings continued to swing the momentum in the second quarter. Three-pointers from Olson and Gracie Castenada tied the score for the first time at 23-23, and after a brief 4-0 run from Valdosta State, Walling hit layups on back-to-back possessions to tie it again at 27-27 with just under three minutes left in the first half.

With 20 seconds to play, Walling grabbed a defensive board and converted a layup at the other end to send the Vikings into the break with a surprising 33-31 halftime lead. Western Washington facilitated the comeback by out-rebounding Valdosta State 12-3 in the second quarter.

The Vikings had more clawing back to do in the third quarter after the Blazers jumped out on a 6-0 to start the second half, taking a 37-31 lead on a Kwajelin Farrar layup. With Valdosta State up 41-38 with two minutes to play in the quarter, sophomore center Carley Zaragoza converted a huge basket with the foul, then made the free-throw to tie the score. After VSU re-took the lead at the other end, Olson drained her third three-pointer to give the Vikings a 44-43 lead they took to the benches as the third quarter expired.

Held to 34 percent shooting from the field and 23 percent from behind the arc, Valdosta State kept themselves in the game by converting 18 of 19 from the free-throw line. In the cruelness of March, however, it was their one miss that proved costly.

With Western Washington clinging to a 54-52 lead with 1:12 left, Farrar went to the line for a VSU team that had made its first 15 free-throw attempts. Farrar hit the first but missed the second. Riley Dykstra grabbed the rebound and executed a sweet give and go with Walling that freed her up in the left corner. The freshman sunk a three-pointer, her first make of the night from distance, and instead of a tie game, the Blazers suddenly found themselves down four.

The Blazers cut the lead on a pair of free throws from Taylor Searcey, then got a stop to potentially give themselves the last possession. Off a dribble handoff, Searcey barreled towards the basket and clobbered into Avery Dykstra, sending both players to the floor. The officials called a travel on Searcey, who could not get a shot away, giving WWU the ball with six seconds left.

Riley Dykstra got fouled and went 1 of 2 from the line, so Valdosta State had one last chance down by three. The inbounds heave found Lilly Long, who tried to pass it back to a teammate as her momentum carried her out of bounds. Olson made a tremendous anticipatory play, picking off the route for her fifth steal of the game and taking a dribble as the buzzer sounded to give the Vikings a win.

Western Washington’s victory keeps alive a fun school-wide statistic. The Vikings are 15-0 in national quarterfinal games, with women’s soccer (four), volleyball (four), men’s basketball (three) and women’s basketball (three) providing multiple victories.

The No. 5 Vikings were the only lower seed to advance from Monday’s quarterfinals. In addition to top-seeded North Georgia, No. 2 Grand Valley State and No. 3 Glenville State also won and will face each other in the other semifinal.

North Georgia is 29-3 overall and won the Peach Belt Conference regular-season and tournament championships. They advanced by beating Pace 68-61 in the Elite Eight. The Nighthawks and Vikings have never faced each other in program history. The teams are scheduled to tip off on Wednesday at 8:30 CDT (6:30 PT) after the conclusion of the first semifinal match-up.