EVERETT — At the end of the day, it was just a bunch of young women and a coach that told them they belonged.
Big Bend didn’t exactly stun the basketball world, but the No. 4 seed out of the East are one of four teams left standing at the NWAC women’s basketball championships following Friday night’s 89-79 victory over Everett Community College in the Elite Eight.
The words “Final Four, Final Four, Final Four” reverberated from the Vikings’ locker room and down the hall. Big Bend hadn’t been to the NWAC tournament in 15 years, so it was uncharted territory, even for coach Preston Wilks, the winningest coach in Big Bend women’s basketball history.
“It’s really unbelievable. I’ve said it all year long that we deserve to be here and we’re a Final Four team. But to come here and do it, it’s just so gratifying,” Wilks said. “I told the kids all we have to do is get here, and I believe we’ll make it to the Final Four.
“When I first started saying it, they looked at me like ‘Coach, we’re not even in the tournament, how can you be talking about the Final Four.’ But that’s how much I believe in these guys and now we’re there.”
The Vikings (22-9) beat West Region No. 1 seed Grays Harbor, led by NWAC scoring leader Alexia Thrower, the night before. They came right back and dismantled the No. 2 seed from the North, pulling away with an impressive 48-point second half. There were several factors to winning the first Elite Eight game since 2003, none more impressive than freshman Emily Allan’s role.
Starting shooting guard Miranda Johnson went down with a knee injury on Thursday night and the Vikings were without one of their most prolific perimeter shooters, who’s not afraid to drive the lane when the time comes. Allan, who’s been off the bench, was now back in the starting lineup in the biggest game of the season.
“We started working on Emily last night when we knew we weren’t going to have Miranda,” said Wilks, part coach, part psychologist. “We worked on her mental outlook of herself and letting her know she could do it.
“She was still thinking ‘Can I?’ and at halftime she has no points. Then she comes out and scores 15 in the second half when we needed her most. Boy, did she do it.”
Allan finished up 6-of-12 from the floor, 2-2 from the line for a much-needed 15 points.
“My teammates believed in me and it was just a matter of going out and letting the game come to me,” Allan said. “It was whole lot of team ball and everybody did their share. Winning here means a lot. We spent the whole summer working hard. It was my time to help out a little more when they needed me.”
Callie Gronning, a 5-foot-7 sophomore from Soda Springs, Idaho, had a game-high 25 points to go with six rebounds and five assists.
“Anything can happen when you put your mind to something,” Gronning said. “If you believe in something and trust each other as much as we do, we’re tough.”
“We knew it was going to be a tough game at their place and we had to play our best team ball. I’ve spent a lot of time in the gym my whole life and I’ve shot a lot of 3s, so I knew I just had to believe in myself and knock down the 3 when my team needed me.”
Sunnie Martinez was the trigger man most of the night, distributing the ball on the fly, but she managed 15 points. Leah Dougherty had another big night with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Big Bend was 9-of-24 from 3-point range and a little better from the free-throw line (22-33) than the night before.
For a team that dropped all the way down to eighth in the East Region after a home loss to Yakima Valley, it’s been a long ride back to the top. There’s just four teams remaining and the Vikings have a chance to become the first Big Bend team since 2002 to win a NWAC championship.
Big Bend 17 24 28 20 - 89
Everett 21 22 19 17 - 79
Big Bend — Sunnie Martinez 15, Hailey Garrity 12, Emily Allan 15, Leah Dougherty 20, Callie Gronning 25, Sydney Bishop 2. Totals 29-66 22-33 89
Everett — Tyra Lopez 19, Alexis Biggerstaff 10, Ashley Bierer 9, Sydney Taggart 14, Uju Chibuogwu 21 Aloha Salem 3, Nakiya Edwards 3. Totals 32-81 7-12 79
Umpqua 93, Columbia Basin 66
Bellevue 70, Lower Columbia 62
Walla Walla 85, Lane 62