|Kaitlin Jamieson, Tavin Headings and Emily Spencer (left to right) are three of eight players who play more than 10 minutes a game for George Fox.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Nathan Ford
If you’re a believer in recent history, the winner of Friday’s Whitman-George Fox women’s basketball game will also triumph in the rest of its regular-season games.
Yes, for a conference that routinely has multiple teams in the national conversation and has the best cumulative NCAA tournament record since 2007, the last four champions of the Northwest Conference have all gone 16-0.
No. 6 Whitman (13-1, 5-0) and George Fox (11-2, 4-0) are the final two unbeatens in NWC play this season. Their first meeting is at 9 p.m. eastern Friday at Whitman.
The UMAC is the only league in the West Region to even have back-to-back undefeated champions since 2000 (though it should be noted the MIAC used to play 22 games). That was UW-Superior the last two seasons after winning the WIAC in 2014-15.
So, what gives? Maybe it’s pretty simple.
George Fox went 16-0 under head coach Michael Meek in 2011-12, 2014-15 and 2015-16. It went on to win the NWC tournament and make the deepest NCAA run of NWC teams all three seasons, as well as the two years before Meek’s tenure.
“I think maybe some of that is the mindset of a championship team,” said Meek, who noted these recent NWC champions have had plenty of close calls. “They just have a certain level of toughness about them. I think it’s a little bit of that, and I think it’s a little bit of getting into a good rhythm and the belief of when you continue to win, you’re expected to do it and you’re going to. And I think a little bit probably falls on just luck, I guess.”
The regular-season unbeaten hasn’t always had the most postseason success in this run. Last year, third-place Whitman upended unbeaten Puget Sound in the NWC tournament final and went on to the Elite Eight after knocking off George Fox and Puget Sound again in the first two NCAA rounds. Whitman was perfect in conference play during the regular season, lost in the 2014 NWC tournament but ended up finishing second in the NCAA tournament to FDU-Florham.
So, of course, there is still hope for the loser Friday.
Whitman has been on an upward trajectory since that end-of-season run last spring. Led by D3hoops.com preseason All-American Casey Poe (16.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists per game), the Blues haven’t lost to a Division III team since Feb. 18 against George Fox.
You can’t blame Meek if he had a little Whitman fatigue last spring. The Bruins’ final three games of the season were all against the Blues: a 65-62 win in the regular-season finale, a 78-71 loss in the NWC semifinals and a 76-72 loss in the NCAA first round. The first and last were on Whitman’s home floor.
“We really felt last year we were playing well and getting better last year as the season went on,” Meek said. “I think the hard thing for our league is just the fact that we’ve been so competitive at the national level, but yet, we really only get one team with a chance to get by the Round of 32.”
As NWC followers know, that’s life out west with the NCAA’s travel rules.
“To me, it’s remarkable that in the last seven years, we’ve had three teams that have played in the national championship and, I believe, three others that have played in the Elite Eight,” Meek said. “And that’s only with one chance.”
Last year, Whitman had the chance and reached the Elite Eight. We might get a hint Friday as to which team is best poised for that chance this March.
If it’s George Fox, good luck keying in on any individuals.
For one, it can be tough to keep track of three significant contributors who share the same first name (although all spell it differently): Hailey Hartney, Haylee Hutzler and Haley Stowbridge.
“We’ve had to work through with nicknames a little bit so we can make sure we’re not distracting them,” Meek said. “It’s really been cool to watch them all grow into new roles this year.”
More importantly, this is just an incredibly balanced squad.
Six-foot-3 senior forward Kaitlin Jamieson is the leading scorer, and she’s averaging 10.7 points per game. Seven others – including Hailey (7.7), Haylee (7.2) and Haley (6.7) – average between 5.8 and 9.6.
“I think we really try to continue to put an emphasis on sharing the ball and feel like teams are a lot harder to guard when there’s not one or two players to focus on,” Meek said. “Some of it is the way that we would like to play, but then also some of it is the fact that we’ve got a lot of balance, personnel and a lot of kids that can shoot the 3 on this team.”
Jamieson and fellow senior Julie Litchfield are the emotional leaders of a relatively young team. While Jamieson’s scoring has dropped so far this season, her production elsewhere is up. She averages a team-best 7.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks.
“She’s really working hard on the defensive end,” Meek said. She’s such a good shot-blocker. Her defensive presence, her rebounding – we’re a team that typically presses and this has easily been her best year in our press. It’s just been a very good overall year for her.”
Jamieson averaged 9.4 points and 6.5 rebounds for the 2015-16 George Fox team that went 16-0 in the NWC and reached the Sweet 16. She saw limited time on the 2015 NCAA runner-up team. So, she knows how you win in the postseason.
And, probably, in the NWC regular season.
“I think the great thing is, with a few months left or more, she has room to grow off that as well,” Meek said.
He was talking about Jamieson’s production, but the thought could be applied to the losing team Friday at Sherwood Athletic Center.
For as good as the NWC is, eventually a champion is sure to emerge with a blemish or two.
5 things that caught my attention last week
1. This one slipped by me over the holidays. The UC-Santa Cruz men have set a school record for Division III wins in a season. The Banana Slugs are 11-5 overall, 9-5 against D-III competition. The previous most successful UCSC team in the D-III era won seven D-III games.
2. Luther’s Claire Marburger was 20-for-20 from the free-throw line in Saturday’s 90-72 win over Nebraska Wesleyan. She piled up 36 points and 15 rebounds in that one. The Central transfer averages a team-high 17.6 points and 7.5 rebounds heading into Wednesday’s game at No. 2 Wartburg.
3. Northland led exactly once in Saturday’s 63-62 win over Crown: when Brandon Galland buried a 3 with 0.1 seconds to play. The Lumberjacks were down five with 16 seconds left. A free throw and Thomas Whiting putback cut it to two. Crown missed the front end of a one-and-one and Galland delivered at the horn. He finished with 15 points and Northland improved to 5-9 overall, 2-3 in the UMAC.
4. The last Saturday of the regular season is sure to have plenty of storylines, but you might want to make time to catch some of the Key City men’s rivalry. That’s Loras and Dubuque for the uninitiated. Loras won the first game Wednesday, 98-91, but not before Dubuque’s T.J. Lake went off for 50 points. He was 8-of-12 from 3-point range, made all 18 of his free throws and added four assists for kicks. Lake played 39 minutes. Josh Ruggles led Loras with 30 points in 24 minutes.
5. You know how tough the NWC is. The Willamette women continue to make strides there. The Bearcats won five conference games for the first time since 2004-05 last year, and are already 3-1 this season thanks to a pair of overtime wins last week. Willamette rallied from 14 down in the fourth quarter to knock off host Linfield 76-70 last Tuesday. Saturday the Bearcats downed defending NWC champion Puget Sound, 65-64, on Idaho State transfer Britanny Kochenderfer’s layup with 15 seconds left. She blocked a shot on UPS’ next possession.
Hidden gem of the week
Kylie Towry set a Willamette record with 14-of-14 free-throw shooting in last Tuesday’s overtime win over Linfield, and she got some help from the Linfield gym. Towry made two free throws before the game started because Linfield’s shot clock buzzer wasn’t working. She had a career-high 28 points.