March 10, 2014
PORTLAND, Ore. -
By Evan O'Kelly, GNAC Publicity Office
Not only did Western Washington University defend its Great Northwest Athletic Conference women's basketball title on Saturday, but the Vikings did so by defeating Simon Fraser 78-74 in comeback fashion.
The Vikings trailed by as many as 16 points, and overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to earn the GNAC championship. WWU has been named the GNAC Team of the Week, after overcoming a slow start to the 2013-14 season and riding into the West Regional playoffs by virtue of the conference's automatic berth.
"How we ended that game was indicative of our season," WWU head coach Carmen Dolfo (23rd year, 494-182) said regarding WWU's latest win over SFU. "We started slow, weren't very good early on, but by the end we had really grown and improved."
WWU began its season 3-5, and the team was struggling to find its identity after the 2012-13 squad won the West Regional and advanced to the NCAA Final Four.
"No one was used to their role early on, and that's why we struggled at the start of the season," Dolfo said. "I probably underestimated how much of an adjustment it was for our juniors, as they really had to learn how to lead and carry our team."
Two of the juniors who stepped up the most during last week's GNAC title run were Katie Colard and Jenni White. In the Vikings' 81-71 semifinal win over Saint Martin's, Colard had 23 points including three 3-pointers early in the first half that gave the Vikings momentum.
"Katie was always more of a role player on our team last season and she got a lot of minutes, but she never had to be the one to carry us," Dolfo said about the junior guard.
On Saturday, Colard added 21points, but it was White's two-day performance that garnered Tournament Most Valuable Player honors. On Friday, White scored 15 points and had a career-high nine assists, while also logging five rebounds and a steal. The junior guard followed that with a 17-point, five-steal, four-assist effort in the championship game to fuel her team to victory.
"Jenni is another player who got plenty of time on last season's team, but it wasn't until this season that she really had to step into a main leadership role," Dolfo said.
While WWU's junior veterans have come into their own as leaders, several younger players have proven to be invaluable as well. Most notably, freshmen Tia Briggs and Taylor Peacocke have shown a rare ability to learn a team's system quickly and fit into significant roles right away.
"Tia and Taylor have both been outstanding for us, and they don't play like freshmen," Dolfo said. "Both have such a great ability to score, and I have been so pleased with how they have responded in pressure situations at different times throughout the season."
One such pressure-filled situation came on Saturday night, when the Vikings found themselves in a double-digit hole against Simon Fraser in the second half. Peacocke assumed command, finishing the game with a 15-point, 11-rebound double-double off of the bench. "Taylor was huge in getting us back into that game," said Dolfo.
Briggs has developed into one of the best role players in the conference in her first season, as she averages 9.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game while playing 22.9 minutes.
Another key to WWU's success is the team's personality, as senior Sarah Hill and junior Sydney Donaldson are two of the best at getting their team fired up to play.
"We want to have the loudest bench and be as encouraging as we can for each other," Dolfo said. "Both Syd and Sarah bring so much for us energy wise, and all of our injured players have been amazing in that regard too."
With the NCAA West Regional selections being announced on Sunday evening, WWU earned the No. 6 seed, setting up a rematch with the No. 3-seed Clan. The meeting on Friday in Pomona, Calif., will be the fourth of the season between the familiar foes, and the eighth overall in the last two years.
"We are just so excited to be going to the regionals," said Dolfo. "This is the eighth time in two years playing Simon Fraser, so both teams will know each other well, and we have been doing everything we could all season to get to this point."