WWU, UAA Look To Fend Off Tournament Challengers
Western Washington's Emma Duff (left) and Alaska Anchorage's Jazzpher Evans (right) are both part of programs looking to repeat past success at the upcoming GNAC Championships.
Western Washington's Emma Duff (left) and Alaska Anchorage's Jazzpher Evans (right) are both part of programs looking to repeat past success at the upcoming GNAC Championships.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

PORTLAND, Ore. – The first GNAC Women’s Basketball Championships in two years gets underway on Wednesday in a one-time-only 10-team expanded format, and the two teams that played for the title in 2020 are the top two seeds this time around.

After advancing to the championship game as the No. 3 seed in 2020, Western Washington rolled into the conference season with an undefeated 8-0 record and went 10-4 in GNAC play to earn the No. 1 seed and the regular-season championship according to the conference’s Points Rating System (PRS). Head coach Carmen Dolfo’s team paced the conference in several categories, including scoring defense (56.4 points per game), field goal percentage (.453), field goal percentage defense (.343), three-point defense (.246), rebounds per game (40.1) and scoring margin (+14.5 per game).

Although they lost two of three to end the season, the Vikings stacked several marquee wins early on in the schedule. They achieved a regular-season sweep of Alaska Anchorage, winning 53-45 in Anchorage on January 20 and 63-50 in Bellingham on February 19, and also tallied a 74-72 road win over Central Washington on February 12. Individually, the Vikings are led by senior Emma Duff, who ranked sixth in the GNAC with 15.7 points per game and eighth in the GNAC with 6.7 rebounds per game. Duff is shooting 46 percent from the field and 83 percent from the line.

Sisters Riley Dykstra and Avery Dykstra have been impact guards for the Vikings, with Riley averaging 8.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and Avery averaging seven points and 2.1 rebounds per game. In the paint, Brooke Walling averages 7.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and has 16 blocks, while Carley Zaragoza leads the GNAC with a .573 field-goal percentage.

The regular season and tournament champions from 2019-20, Alaska Anchorage enters as the No. 2 seed. After an uncharacteristic blip in mid-January where the Seawolves lost three straight, including their first two conference home losses since 2015, they closed the year winning nine of their last 10 and finished with a 12-4 GNAC record, 19-5 overall.

Head coach Ryan McCarthy’s trademark “Mayhem” defense has been out in full force as the Seawolves lead the conference in steals per game (12.4) and turnover margin (+5.96). The Seawolves earned two head-to-head victories against Central Washington in the regular season, winning 78-68 in Anchorage on February 5 and 89-81 in Ellensburg on February 21.

Senior forward Tennae Voliva has carried the Seawolves with 12.7 points and seven rebounds per game. Point guard Nicole Pinckney averages 7.8 points and 3.3 assists and ranks third in the GNAC with a 1.9 assist/turnover ratio. In guards Rachel Ingram and Jahnna Hajdukovich, the Seawolves have a pair of sharpshooters that can hit from distance at any moment. Ingram hit seven threes in a half on January 27 and Hajdukovich ranks second in the conference with a .390 three-point percentage.

Central Washington will be the No. 3 seed after finishing at 13-5 in the GNAC and 20-7 overall. The Wildcats boast the top-scoring offense in the conference at 73.7 points per game and are the most statistically flashy team in the tournament. Junior center Samantha Bowman is averaging 16.3 points and a staggering 15.4 rebounds per game, the most in Division II. She has already broken the GNAC single-season record with 386 rebounds, breaking the old record of 385 by SFU alum and Canadian Olympian Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe.

Central Washington also has two high-powered guards in Kizzah Maltezo and Kassidy Malcolm. Maltezo is the GNAC’s leading scorer at 18.9 points per game and ranks second with 2.9 made threes per game. Malcolm ranks second in the GNAC at 18.3 points per game, leads the conference in free-throw percentage (.860) and ranks ninth with 6.7 rebounds per game. Central hasn’t been shy about keeping their stars on the floor. All five of CWU’s starters (the above three plus Valerie Huerta and Tori Maeda) rank in the top 10 in the GNAC in minutes played per game.

Northwest Nazarene is the No. 4 seed after going 18-8 overall and compiling a 12-6 conference record, which includes a pair of wins over Western Washington. Freshman forward Teagan Thurman had a strong debut season with 12.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Erin Jenkins provides veteran leadership, 50 percent shooting from the field and 11.4 points per game, while point guard Jordan Pinson is fifth in the GNAC with 3.5 assists per game and sixth with 1.7 steals per game.

No. 5 seed Montana State Billings has a 16-11 overall record and a 10-5 mark in conference, which includes two wins over Alaska Anchorage. MSUB’s hopes of a deep run will largely go with the play of Taryn Shelley. The senior forward ranks seventh in the GNAC with 15.3 points per game and second with 8.2 rebounds per game. Shelley ranks seventh in the conference in shooting both from the field (.491) and the line (.806). Cariann Kunkel is another name to watch after the senior averaged 11.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. The Yellowjackets lead the conference by shooting 76 percent from the free-throw line as a team.

Simon Fraser is the No. 6 seed, bouncing back from a 2-5 start in GNAC play to finish 8-8 in conference and 12-13 overall. When the ball goes in the net for SFU, chances are it’ll be because of a Jessica. Jessica Jones, the preseason Player of the Year, missed the first two months of the season but averaged 16.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game upon her return. Jessica Wisotzki is the conference’s fourth-leading scorer at 16.8 points per game and makes two three-pointers per game. Simon Fraser leads the GNAC in assists per game (16.7).

The final four teams will play first-round games on Wednesday hoping to advance to the quarterfinals. No. 7 Seattle Pacific has a penchant for low-scoring games, with the second-best scoring defense (59.6 points per game) and field-goal percentage defense (.356) in the conference. If scoring comes for the Falcons, expect it to be from seniors Natalie Hoff (11 points per game) or Ashley Alter (10.2).

Western Oregon will be the No. 8 seed. The Wolves have a pair of players averaging 10.4 points per game in Tresai McCarver, who ranks second in the GNAC with 4.2 assists per game, and Meadow Aragon, who ranks second in the GNAC with 1.8 blocks per game. Western Oregon averages 4.5 blocks per game as a team, leading the conference.

Saint Martin’s will be seeded No. 9. The Saints are led by Claire Dingus, who ranks third in the GNAC in both scoring (17.2 points per game) and rebounding (7.6 per game) and point guard Tierney DeDonatis, who leads the GNAC with 4.7 assists per game. Freshman Rian Clear has big-game potential. Clear scored 34 points against Central Washington on January 20, the single-game season-high for the GNAC.

Alaska rounds things out as the No. 10 seed. First-year coach Jessie Craig has an incredibly young team with just one senior and no juniors on the roster. Bright spots for the Nanooks include freshman guards Paola Perez-Mendoza, who leads the GNAC with 2.5 steals per game, and Destiny Reimers, who averages 11.5 points per game. Unfortunately, the Nanooks will be without the services of star freshman Pearle Green, who ranked eighth in the GNAC with 14.8 points per game and led the conference with 3.2 made threes per game.

The GNAC Women’s Basketball Championships begin on Wednesday, with No. 7 seed Seattle Pacific hosting No. 10 Alaska in Seattle and No. 8 Western Oregon facing No. 9 Saint Martin’s in Lacey.

The quarterfinals take place on Thursday. In Lacey, No. 4 Northwest Nazarene and No. 5 Montana State Billings play at noon with No. 1 seed Western Washington facing the winner of the WOU/SMU game at 2:15 p.m. In Seattle, No. 3 Central Washington and No. 6 Simon Fraser square off at noon with No. 2 Alaska Anchorage taking on the winner of SPU/UAF at 2:15 p.m. The semifinals and championship games will be played at Marcus Pavilion on the campus of Saint Martin’s University in Lacey.

All games at the GNAC Women’s Basketball Championships will be streamed live at GNAC.tv. Tickets for the tournament are available for advance purchase at GNACTickets.com.