Top-seeded Big Bend, Umpqua meet for shot at NWAC championship

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  • Connor Vanderweyst/Columbia Basin Herald Big Bend point guard Kayla Luke pushes the ball up the court against Mt. Hood.

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    Connor Vanderweyst/Columbia Basin Herald Big Bend sophomore Miranda Johnson (11) is congratulated by her teammates after checking out of Sunday's quarterfinal game against Centralia.

  • Connor Vanderweyst/Columbia Basin Herald Big Bend point guard Kayla Luke pushes the ball up the court against Mt. Hood.

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    Connor Vanderweyst/Columbia Basin Herald Big Bend sophomore Miranda Johnson (11) is congratulated by her teammates after checking out of Sunday's quarterfinal game against Centralia.

MOSES LAKE — The tale of the tape is just about even.

Big Bend and Umpqua, which meet in one of Saturday’s NWAC Tournament semifinals, were ranked second and third, respectively, in the final coaches poll. Both teams won their region, have identical 27-4 records, own the two longest win streaks in the NWAC and post similar offensive numbers.

“I think the biggest challenge is just making sure we play within our system and play according to our game plan,” head coach Preston Wilks said. “They’re a good enough team that they can disrupt what you want to do and I think that’s going to just be our biggest challenge is just taking our game plan and making sure we try to stick to it as much as possible.”

No. 1 seed Big Bend played up to its distinction in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. The Vikings advanced to their second consecutive Final Four after blowing out Mt. Hood, 89-53, and Centralia, 79-52.

Leah Dougherty, who is preparing for her sixth tournament game in two seasons, shot 89 percent from the floor against the Saints and scored the game’s first nine points against the Trailblazers. For Big Bend to advance to Sunday’s final, Dougherty will have to continue her increased offense.

Something she has no problem with, especially in Everett.

“I think just the fact that we’ve been there (Everett Community College) a lot,” Dougherty said. “My coach makes it a priority that we go to Everett in the preseason and so when we go there for the tournament it’s not super new and we’re not extremely nervous because we’ve been there before so I think that’s helped. I’ve been there like five times by now, at least, so I think it just helps that I’m used to the environment and stuff.”

Dougherty’s sophomore running mate Miranda Johnson was unable to play in the last two games of Big Bend’s 2018 tournament. So far, Johnson has showcased what the Vikings missed with 24 points in the Sweet 16 and 25 points in the Elite Eight; both outputs were team-highs.

“I’m just doing everything I possibly can,” she said. “Getting in the gym as much as possible because this is our last week and possibly my last games ever so I’m just doing everything I possibly can to get myself better and our team better and we’re just going as hard as we can in practice and focusing on all the little things and focusing on our defense a lot as well.”

Defense is one area where Big Bend holds a distinct advantage.

The Vikings have a top 10 scoring defense, allowing 61.5 points per game. Conversely, the RiverHawks are 23rd in team defense.

Umpqua makes up the gap with an explosive offense. The RiverHawks trot out South Region MVP and NWAC leading scorer Taylor Stricklin. More, Umpqua’s Darian Mitchell was freshman of the year in the South.

Big Bend counters with all-region first-teamer Johnson, second-teamer Hannah Wilson and all-defensive team member Dougherty.

Wilson is one freshman that hasn’t shown any jitters in her first postseason experience. The forward out of Rexburg, Idaho provided a reliable interior presence against Mt. Hood with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Wilson continued her solid play in the Elite Eight, posting 14 points and eight rebounds.

It will take a village against Umpqua and the Vikings believe they can deliver.

“We’ve been telling them all along that we can do whatever we want, that we’re the ones that will limit how high we can get,” Wilks said. “We’ve been telling them all along that we have the potential, we have the ability, but the only thing that will hold us back is ourselves.”

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