(Editor's note: MSUB Athletics release)
LACEY, Wash. – A valiant comeback effort fell short on Friday afternoon at Marcus Pavilion as No. 22 Western Washington University held off the Montana State University Billings women’s basketball team 69-63 in the semifinals of the 2022 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships.
The Yellowjackets (17-12) overcame a bad start and a 15-point deficit early in the game, and got within two points down 65-63 with 19 seconds left on the clock. But the top-seeded Vikings hit 9 of 10 free throws in the final 1:13 of the game to keep enough of a distance to advance to Saturday’s championship tilt against No. 3 seed Central Washington.
“I’m proud of our team, and I thought we had an excellent tournament,” said MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin. “We lost to a very good team tonight, but we fought back in the second half to take it down to the wire. We have had a great season. I don’t know if we have done enough to move on, but what matters right now is that I got to coach a great group of young women who gave it all they had. I am proud of them.”
The Yellowjackets didn’t appear in the top-10 in the latest NCAA Division II west region rankings, which were released on Wednesday. In order for the team’s 2021-22 campaign to continue, the team’s 69-56 win Thursday over Northwest Nazarene – which was ranked seventh in the regional rankings – would have to be enough to elevate it to at least the No. 8 position in the rankings. The 2022 NCAA D2 West Region Championship playoff field will be unveiled Sunday night at 8 p.m. Mountain time, with a live stream of the selections available online at www.ncaa.com [ncaa.com].
Cariann Kunkel led the Yellowjackets with 18 points on Friday, making 6 of 16 shots and 5 of 6 free throws in her 35 minutes on the floor. Playing in perhaps her final career game, senior Taryn Shelley narrowly missed a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds. Aspen Giese saved the best game of her true freshman season for last, scoring a season-high 12 points while adding five rebounds and two assists in 24 strong minutes off the bench. “We got a really big spark late in the game from Aspen, who hit some shots for us,” Woodin said. “I thought Cariann had a couple three-point plays late that were big, and we made a run at them. We have to give them credit – their team made good decisions.”
MSUB could not overcome a 2-for-18 line from 3-point range, as the Yellowjackets missed their first 11 treys of the night which drastically hampered their comeback efforts. Overall in the game MSUB shot just 31.7 percent (19-for-60), relying on good ball protection with just 10 turnovers and solid defense with 14 takeaways to keep the game close. “I really liked the way we fought back,” said Woodin. “Western started well, and we dug ourselves a hole early. I felt like we came out a little bit tight, and a lot of that was they were playing some excellent defense on us. We regrouped and had a strong second quarter to get back into the game. Our defense was very good in the first half especially, and we kept clawing.”
The Yellowjackets got off to a slow start, going without a bucket over the first 3:30 until Kunkel broke the dry spell with a layup underneath. WWU’s smothering defense limited MSUB to just six points in the first quarter, and by the middle of the second the ‘Jackets found themselves behind by 15 points.
As well as the Vikings started the game defensively, the Yellowjackets responded with a similarly impressive push to close the first half. Trailing 25-10 with 6:15 to go in the second quarter, MSUB held WWU without a field goal for the rest of the half to get back into the game. The Yellowjackets went on an 11-0 run during that time, while the Vikings went 0-for-6 with four turnovers. MSUB’s run was highlighted by three straight charges taken by the ‘Jackets, the latter of which led to a layup by Shelley to bring the deficit down to 25-21.
“Our defense this tournament has been outstanding, and our assistant coaches did a great job with preparation,” Woodin said. “Our players really bought in, and we were able to climb back due to that defense. We had good ball pressure, we limited them to one shot a lot, and we took some charges during that period. It definitely sparked our offense, and got it closer.”
A pair of free throws by Gracie Castaneda finally broke the slump for WWU, as she lifted the Vikings to a 27-21 lead at halftime. MSUB endured an 0-for-6 mark from 3-point range in the first half, and overall the ‘Jackets shot just 33.3 percent (8-for-24) over the opening 20 minutes of play.
Western Washington (20-4) got back on track with a 21-15 scoring advantage in the third quarter, and the Vikings got their lead back up to 12 points by the end of the period.
Facing a 12-point deficit with eight minutes to go in the game, the Yellowjackets got their final push started with a 6-0 run to make the score 53-47. Kunkel knocked down MSUB’s first three with two minutes gone in the fourth quarter, breaking the team’s lingering 0-for-11 run from the arc. The junior later converted back-to-back three-point plays with less than a minute to go in regulation, bringing the score to a two-possession game with MSUB trailing 64-60. Giese had four of her points during the final four minutes of the game, helping keep the ‘Jackets in it until the final buzzer.
“In the third quarter they got us down a lot, but our players fought all the way back and I’m really proud of our efforts,” Woodin said. “Offensively we struggled from the 3-point line, and over the last few weeks that has kind of been our Achilles heel. We haven’t made enough threes at a high enough rate to help our offense win games, and in the future that’s something we need to do.”
Emma Duff led the Vikings in scoring with 15 points, while Brooke Walling had 14 to go along with a team-high seven rebounds. Avery Dykstra added 11 points, Mollie Olson chipped in 10, and Riley Dykstra matched Walling with seven boards while contributing seven points. WWU shot 44.9 percent in the game (22-for-49), but made just 3 of 15 treys (20.0 percent). WWU was superb during its many trips to the free-throw line, making 22 of 26 shots (84.6 percent).
Dyauni Boyce had seven points, three assists, and two rebounds in 13 minutes off the bench, while Kortney Nelson added nine points – all on free throws – and four rebounds. “Dyauni had a strong first half, and helped us out there during that run we had,” Woodin said. “Our freshmen did a great job, and our young players definitely stepped up, got used to the moment and the pressure of a GNAC semifinal game. Once they settled in, I thought they made some very good plays.”