Vikings Down No. 1 Seed, Will Play For National Title
(L to R) Western Washington's Emma Duff, Riley Dykstra, Avery Dykstra and Brooke Walling celebrate their 74-68 Final Four win over North Georgia. Photo by Michael Wade.
(L to R) Western Washington's Emma Duff, Riley Dykstra, Avery Dykstra and Brooke Walling celebrate their 74-68 Final Four win over North Georgia. Photo by Michael Wade.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Western Washington women’s basketball has a storied history. The Vikings have over 1,000 all-time wins as a program, which includes 36 20-win seasons, 18 NCAA tournament appearances, three West Regional titles and three trips to the Final Four.

As of tonight, however, this 2021-22 team has gone where no Vikings squad has gone before.

Western Washington unleashed a tidal wave of momentum in the second half, turning a one-point halftime deficit into a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, and the Vikings knocked off top-seeded North Georgia 74-68 in the NCAA Final Four from the Birmingham Crossplex in Birmingham, Alabama. As a result, the Vikings’ season continues until Friday night, when they will appear in the first national championship game in program history against Glenville State at 5:00 p.m. PDT.

The Vikings (25-5) won how they have won all year – with lockdown defense and balanced scoring. Individually, the stars were sophomore center Brooke Walling with 19 points and five steals and senior guard Emma Duff with 18 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. But the Vikings received contributions from up and down their deep and talented roster.

Eleven players checked in for WWU, all of whom played for five minutes or more. Ten of those players both scored and recorded at least one rebound or assist for the Vikings.

Defensively, the Vikings struggled to slow North Georgia’s one-two punch of sophomore guard Caroline Martin and senior forward and WBCA National Player of the Year Julianne Sutton in the first half, but made halftime adjustments and held the Nighthawks to just 27 percent shooting in the second half, including 3 of 16 (18 percent) from the field in the third quarter as WWU took control of the game.

North Georgia (29-4) had a special season, rolling to the Peach Belt Conference regular-season and tournament titles. Earlier Wednesday, Sutton was named the National Player of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association after averaging 16.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game while shooting 55 percent from the field, and the Nighthawks were assigned the No. 1 seed by the NCAA when advancing teams reseeded before the Elite Eight.

The Nighthawks did a lot of things that, in most cases, would have won them the game. They attempted 10 more free throws than Western Washington and made nine more. They nearly doubled the Vikings’ three-point percentage (25 percent to WWU’s 14 percent). The two teams had the same amount of rebounds (38) and nearly the same amount of turnovers (North Georgia had 20 to WWU’s 19).

But between losing senior point guard Dani Iwami to a season-ending knee injury in February, playing four games in eight days to close the regular season, having their momentum halted with a GNAC Championships loss to Central Washington or falling behind 13-1 during their Elite Eight match-up against Valdosta State, this Western Washington team has always found a way to win or advance when the road hasn’t been easy.

North Georgia took the initiative early, as Martin and Sutton pounded the ball inside to score in the paint or draw contact and get to the line. The Nighthawks opened up a 14-7 lead in the game’s first three minutes, with Martin and Sutton accounting for nine of those points, but the Vikings cut the deficit thanks in part to two baskets from Katrina Gimmaka and closed to within one before the first quarter ended with North Georgia up 23-19.

The Nighthawks continued to go to Martin, who had 17 points in the first half, but the Vikings still managed to gain ground in the second quarter. A 6-0 run gave the Vikings the lead for the first time at 5:18 to play in the second after the Vikings forced two North Georgia and bracketed them with three baskets – a Gimmaka layup, a Walling layup and a Gimmaka elbow jumper. The teams traded six lead changes and seven ties in the second quarter alone, but North Georgia had the last word of the first half, hitting two free throws with 24 seconds left to enter halftime ahead, 38-37.

At halftime, North Georgia was shooting 44 percent from the floor and Western Washington had only held the lead for 53 seconds. Both of those statistics would change dramatically when all was said and done.

The teams traded baskets immediately out of halftime before Western Washington went on a 9-0 run fueled by their defense which changed the scope of the game. After Walling scored to give the Vikings a 41-40 lead, Riley Dykstra made her presence felt by setting up Maddy Grandbois with a fast-break layup, then coming away with a steal on the ensuing possession to ignite another fast break that ended with Duff converting a three-point play at the other end. After Duff made her foul shot, Avery Dykstra stole the ball and fed her sister Riley for a layup, and suddenly the Vikings had an eight-point lead.

After the 9-0 run, Duff (7 points) and Walling (4) took over, combining to score the Vikings’ remaining 11 points in the third period. Western Washington outscored North Georgia 16-4 in the paint in the third quarter, and it felt as though the Vikings were imposing their will on the top-seeded Nighthawks.

North Georgia never really got back in the game. The Nighthawks committed six turnovers in the final period, trying to force the ball inside to their playmaker Sutton but not getting the ball past the Vikings’ hounding defense. Walling was the main beneficiary as four of her five steals came in the fourth quarter. The lead hit a high of 12 points with 1:34 left to play, and North Georgia didn’t help themselves catch up by missing three of their final nine free-throw attempts.

For the fifth consecutive time this postseason, Western Washington players gathered to jump up and down at midcourt to celebrate a victory when the buzzer sounded. On Friday night, their goal will be to do that one more time.

As a conference, the GNAC has never won a women’s basketball national championship. This year’s Vikings will become the third GNAC team to appear in a national championship game, joining Seattle Pacific, who lost 70-53 to Washburn in 2005, and Alaska Anchorage, who lost 78-73 to Lubbock Christian in 2016.

Glenville State will unquestionably be a tough opponent, however. The Pioneers are 34-1, with their only loss coming in the Mountain East Conference tournament championship. Glenville State was ranked No. 3 in the final editions of both the WBCA Coaches Poll and D2SIDA Media Poll prior to the NCAA tournament.

Glenville State features a D2SIDA First-Team All-American in Re’Shawna Stone and the WBCA National Coach of the Year in Kim Stephens. They have been especially impressive in Birmingham, defeating No. 6 West Texas A&M 103-56 in the quarterfinals and No. 2 Grand Valley State 77-53 in the semifinals.