Fans stormed WECU Court after Avery Dykstra sealed the game, grabbing her final rebound at Western Washington University’s Carver Gym on the night of Saturday, March 4.
“It was so much fun,” Dykstra said in a postgame press conference. “It was the perfect way to end my last game here at Carver.”
In their third Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship game in four years, Western’s women's basketball team triumphed, defeating Montana State University Billings 76-71, their first championship in eight years.
Coming into the game, Western had lost its previous two matchups against MSUB this season. Most recently, they fell 64-66 in overtime on Feb. 16, a game where Yellowjackets sophomore guard Aspen Giese exploded for 25 points.
Saturday’s championship began with Western forward Katrina Gimmaka knocking in a side-step jumper on the opening possession of the game.
Only 90 seconds in, fans held their breath when Western’s leading scorer Brooke Walling had to exit the game after tweaking her ankle.
“I knew what I needed to do, get more tape on it and come back in,” Walling said. “A little annoying to have to deal with that, but it’s alright.”
She re-entered halfway through the first quarter and immediately made her presence felt with an offensive rebound and putback, followed by another bucket in the next possession. Walling was named tournament MVP after the game.
A late first-quarter three and a pair of free throws from Chloe Williams put MSUB in the lead going into the second, 22-17.
The second quarter mirrored the first, with MSUB putting up 22 points and Western scoring 15.
MSUB briefly held a 17-point lead with a minute left in the second quarter, but Walling converted an and-1 layup with 3.6 seconds remaining. MSUB knocked down five 3-pointers in the quarter, and nine in the first half. As the halftime buzzer went off, Western was down by 12.
Both teams traded buckets to start the third, though Western began chipping away at the deficit.
Western’s Maddy Grandbois cut the lead to single digits, hitting a three with under two minutes left in the quarter, the score 58-49. Following another Walling jumper, Carley Zaragoza stole the ball from the Yellowjackets, allowing Grandbois to hit another triple on the other end.
“The big turning point for us is defensively [when] we decided to get into people a little bit more,” head coach Carmen Dolfo said. “We were passive the first half, and we came back, and our team got determined.”
The quarter ended with a Zaragoza basket at the buzzer, making it a two-point game heading into the fourth.
Once the Vikings took the lead in the fourth, their scoring didn’t let up, extending the lead to eight multiple times. Western held the lead, showing off a team effort, with six Vikings scoring in the final quarter.
The Vikings dominated the glass, out-rebounding MSUB 35-23. The Vikings shot an efficient 56% from the field compared to MSUB’s 37%.
Walling once again led Western scorers with 22 points, displaying an array of post moves in her MVP performance. Grandbois and Dykstra provided sharpshooting, with each going 2-for-2 from three, adding 10 and 12 points respectively. Zaragoza contributed with 12 points and Gimmaka with 10.
Western came into the tournament as the first seed with a regular season record of 22-3, earning them a bye on Thursday’s first round of games.
They beat Seattle Pacific University in the semifinal game Friday night to reach the finals.
Against SPU, Walling posted a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double. Western’s sister duo, Avery and Riley Dykstra, and Mason Oberg all added 9 points of their own. Oberg shot lights out, going 3-for-4 from deep.
“We knew we had to get it in and out to break down their defense, and my teammates did a great job of finding me,” Oberg said.
The first quarter started as a defensive affair, ending with a 12-8 lead for SPU.
Western came back during the second quarter after Riley Dykstra knocked down a three to make it 13-12. Western’s Mollie Olson followed up with a mid-range jumper, prompting an SPU timeout.
The Vikings went on a 9-0 run in the middle of the quarter to stretch the lead to 24-14, but late in the half SPU pushed and made it 27-24 at the break.
The second half stayed close, with multiple lead changes. SPU took the lead midway through the third quarter, and the teams tied several times before Western regained the lead, 52-51, with 4 minutes and 58 seconds left in the fourth.
SPU’s Hunter Beirne quickly took back the lead for the Falcons. But after Oberg’s third triple, Western held on to a slim advantage to close out the game through tough defense and rebounding.
This was Western’s third time facing SPU this season, all of which resulted in wins.
“[SPU] knows our tendencies, we know theirs, so it makes it hard, and you have to switch it up a little bit,” Walling said. “It showed in this game that we did know that, and when it came down to it, we needed to do something different and we did.”
Friday night’s semifinal was an all-around defensive effort, with neither team shooting well. Western shot 39% from the field and SPU shot 31%. The Vikings went 5-for-15 from deep with SPU going 0-for-10 from long range.
In addition to this season’s victory, Western women’s basketball won championships in 2013 and 2014. The Vikings displayed immense home-court advantage this season, going 12-1 at Carver Gym.
The NCAA Division II postseason tournament seeding will be revealed at 7:30 on Sunday, March 5, on the NCAA website. Western is guaranteed a spot after winning their first conference championship in eight years on Saturday evening.
The Vikings will look to make it back to the national championship game where they fell last year to Glenville State, 85-72.
Andrew Foster (he/him) is a sports reporter at The Front. He enjoys listening to music, playing basketball and is working towards a degree in journalism.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.