|Kayla Johnson led Whitworth
with 15 points in last year's NCAA Tournament game at Emory and has
had plenty of key performances this year.
Whitworth athletics photo by Matt Prior
By Josh Smith
A week ago, two ranked teams stood in front of the Whitworth women’s basketball team and the NCAA tournament.
But the Pirates were familiar with this scenario, having won two road games last season to win the Northwest Conference tournament and earn automatic qualification to the NCAA tourney.
Whitworth repeated the feat, taking down No. 13 George Fox in the semifinals Thursday and handing No. 1 Whitman its first loss of the season Saturday to win the conference tournament title.
“I think that helped us know how to prepare mentally and physically for that,” said Whitworth coach Helen Higgs, referring to last year’s conference tournament run. “We were playing two great teams and we knew that going in. They played at a really high level.”
Whitworth was steady at the free throw line and shot well from beyond the arc in both of its Northwest Conference tournament victories.
The Pirates were 30-of-34 from the line while shooting 47 percent from downtown in a 74-55 at George Fox – the first win at Miller Gym this year’s senior class.
Then Whitworth shot 43 percent from 3-point range and went 23-of-27 at the charity stripe on its way to topping previously undefeated Whitman 68-65.
“(With free throws) we’ve been – outside of one or two games – very consistent and very good at that,” Higgs said. “The 3-point shooting for us has been a key for us for a few years. There’s a lot of different ways we can score this year, but when we shoot the 3 well, it really opens up a lot of other things for us.”
Senior Kayla Johnson scored 14 points in the win over George Fox and posted a double-double in the conference title game, scoring 16 points to go with 11 rebounds.
Johnson said the team came into the tournament fired up and with a “refuse to lose attitude.”
Against Whitman, the Pirates went on a 7-0 run in the second half to take its first lead of the game and held on to win by three.
“After every good play that we made, we came together and got excited. That just led to a lot of defensive stops. I think that was the key to winning that game,” Johnson said.
“It’s always tougher winning when you’re not on your home court,” she continued. “I think having to fight for something when you’re away and the underdog gives you that extra motivation.”
KC McConnell added 18 points, shooting 10-of-10 at the free throw line, in the win over Whitman – just two nights after pouring in 19 against George Fox.
Katara Belton-Sharp added 10 points against the Missionaries while Kendra Lahue scored 12 against the Bruins.
“The system that we run and the type of players that we have, they’re really versatile,” Higgs said. “We don’t have a lot of height. We have a lot of 5-9, 5-10, 5-11 kids who can play inside and out – put the ball on the floor and shoot it.
“While they don’t score in the traditional way on the block, we can score inside a lot of different ways. That can be a tough matchup for people at times.”
Whitworth played both George Fox and Whitman late in the regular season. Higgs thought playing both teams down the stretch helped focus her team because those results were fresh on the team’s mind.
“The realities of what didn’t go well and the realities of what we did do well in those games is right there,” Higgs said.
The Pirates will take on George Fox again Friday when the NCAA tournament gets under way in Walla Walla. If Whitworth wins, the team could face host Whitman in the second round.
Higgs said the advantage of seeing their conference rivals again is requiring less scouting work. But the coach felt her team will lose out on the excitement of playing different teams in a new environment.
Johnson is optimistic about the matchup due to the Pirates’ recent success.
“Having such a strong conference gives us confidence and prepares for tough teams we could potentially play in the future,” Johnson said. “George Fox was in the championship a couple years ago and Whitman has been a strong team for a few years now.
“We know that we can beat George Fox and Whitman,” she continued. “We don’t really have to travel. Our families can come. I think we’ll all pretty excited about it.”
Win or lose, Higgs is pleased with the effort her team has given all season.
“They’re awesome. It’s great getting to coaching them,” Higgs said. “I know they’ll show up and play hard.”