Whitman women win battle of NWC royalty

More news about: Whitman

WALLA WALLA, Wash.  The game had the surly tempo of an alleyway stampede. It had the personality of a bruise. And it took what Casey Poe called "a mental slap" for Whitman to steady itself and deadlock its grip on first place with the game on the line.

The sixth-ranked Blues had two steals, an offensive rebound and made five straight free throws inside the final minute of a 77-71 victory over George Fox in a battle of Northwest Conference women's basketball unbeatens at Sherwood Athletic Center on Friday. The series of clutch plays came after the 27th-ranked Bruins had whittled a once-nine point lead to one with 2:31 to play.

"We had started to get a little too much into our own heads," said Poe, whose MVP resume was solidified by 29 points, five steals, five assists, four blocked shots, four rebounds and 13-of-14 shooting at the free throw line. "We calmed down. We said, 'We can pull through.' We had to mentally shake ourselves."

The game was arrhythmic, controlled by the defenses, peppered with whistles. The teams combined to shoot 69 free throws (35 for Fox, 34 for Whitman). The ponderous pace and labyrinthine halfcourt defense put a premium on defensive subtleties, Poe said, things like controlling tempo, on sending help from the weak side.

"Both teams were just playing so stinkin' hard," Whitman head coach Michelle Ferenz said. "We handed them the ball a little too much and they used their depth a little bit better than I did. But down the stretch, when we had been poor defensively, we sucked it up and made a couple of huge plays."

After the Bruins missed four consecutive free throws with the Blues (14-1, 6-0 in NWC) leading 72-71, Emily Rommel made a free throw for Whitman. Then she knocked away an entry pass -- huge play No. 1 -- which Taylor Chambers corralled for the hosts. Makana Stone, who had a monster double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds, snagged an offensive board (huge play No. 2) after Kaelan Shamseldin drew iron on a 3-pointer. That restored possession for the Blues, who ran the clock down to 10.4 seconds before Poe was fouled.

She made both free throws, then stole the ball -- huge play No. 3 -- and was fouled. She made two more free throws to ice it.

The fourth quarter began with Whitman leading 59-50, but the Bruins began getting and converting open looks on almost every possession to make things uncomfortably close, uncomfortably quick. A three-point play by Rommel, who received a perfectly-weighted handoff from Lily Gustafson along the baseline, gave the Blues a wider airway -- and 64-57 lead -- with 6:30 to play.

The Bruins (11-3, 4-1) scored on their next seven possessions, however.

Kaitlin Jamieson's basket at the 2:31 mark made it 72-71, Blues.

A 3-pointer by Shamseldin and Maegen Martin's jumper to close the third quarter upped Whitman's lead to nine.

Everything was contested and nothing came easy in a gritty first half. The teams combined to shoot 33 free throws. George Fox shot 32 percent (8 of 25) from the field. Whitman shot 35.5 percent (11 of 31).

The Blues extended the largest first-half lead for either team, 33-23, on a pair of Martin free throws with 2:41 left in the second quarter. But George Fox closed strong, using the only made 3 of the half -- by Hailey Hartney -- along with two free throws and a basket at the halftime horn by Haley Strowbridge, who picked up a loose ball in the lane and scooped it in, to cut that lead in half.

Whitman, behind 13 points from Poe and 12 by Stone, led 35-30 at the break. The Blues held a slight edge (22-18) on the glass and had 10 steals, paced by Shamseldin (three), Sierra McGarity (two) and Poe (two).

The Blues attacked George Fox's long, quick, rangy defense head on and were in the bonus by the 4:28 mark of the first quarter. Whitman was 7 of 10 at the free throw line over the first 10 minutes.

Poe had 11 first-quarter points, burning the Bruins' press several times, directly off the inbounds.

The Blues won the glass 40-29 and had 16 steals, helping offset 24-of-59 shooting.

Whitman visits Linfield in McMinnville, Oregon, at 6 p.m. on Jan. 19.