The Riverhawks, especially the sophomores, have been waiting for this opportunity since the end of the 2016-17 season.
Then-No. 1-ranked Umpqua fell short of its goal, losing 63-58 to Spokane in the semifinals of the Northwest Athletic Conference women’s basketball tournament at Everett Community College in Everett, Washington.
The No. 1 Riverhawks (30-1) are back in the Final Four, needing a pair of wins to finish the job. Umpqua meets No. 7 Bellevue (22-8) at 6 p.m. Saturday in a semifinal contest at ECC.
Big Bend (22-9) and No. 2 Walla Walla (30-1) follow in the other semi. The championship game is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. Sunday.
Those contests will be live streamed on nwacsports.org.
UCC is seeking its third NWAC title and first since 2000 under Dave Stricklin. The Riverhawks last played for the crown in 2014, losing to Columbia Basin.
“I think we wanted it to be handed to us last year, and know now we have to work for it,” said Umpqua sophomore forward Jordan Stotler. “We’re working for it every day. We’re super confident and are on the same page, but can’t be overconfident. We’re beatable, we just have to play our game.”
“Last year I remember our last practice before we went (to Everett for the semifinals) wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be,” said sophomore guard Alyssa Grenfell. “This year we need to mentally focus, push through practice and go hard.”
Bellevue, the Northern Region champion, advanced to the Final Four by beating Mt. Hood, 61-57, and downing No. 8 Lower Columbia, 70-62. Umpqua, the Southern Region champ, handled Peninsula, 83-62, and blew out Columbia Basin, 93-66.
The Bulldogs and Riverhawks met earlier this season, with Umpqua winning 87-79 at the Bulldog Classic on Dec. 2. The Riverhawks had all five starters score in double figures that day, led by Dajanay Powell with 24 points.
“At this point of the year everything is much more mental than physical,” said Dave Stricklin, winding down his 23rd year as head coach. “Last year with mostly freshmen and a week off, I think we weren’t as prepared and focused going into the Final Four as we are now. All the sophomores know what to expect and a couple of the freshmen have state championship experience.”
UCC is the top scoring team in the NWAC with 87.4 points a game. It’s allowing 59.7 points. Bellevue averages 71 points and gives up 62.9.
“They’re good,” coach Stricklin said of the Bulldogs, guided by Mel Stubblefield. “They’re bigger than the last two teams we’ve played, and have two good twin post players. If we play as well as we can play and they play as well as they can, we should be OK. We won’t be OK if we have 36 turnovers like we had against Columbia Basin, or get in foul trouble.”
“I think we match up pretty well,” Grenfell said. “We need to shoot better and handle the ball better. We need to cut our turnovers down to 15 or under, but if we do have many we’ll have to be able to get defensive stops.”
Bellevue is led by 6-foot sophomore Brenda Akoto (19.5 points, 9.9 rebounds), who was the North’s most valuable player. Melinda Akoto (10.2 points, 9.2 rebounds), Brenda’s twin sister, is another threat inside.
Brenda Akoto scored 25 points against UCC in the first meeting.
Other key players for the Bulldogs are 5-8 sophomores Molly Dixon (14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists) and Sierra Cole (13 points). Dixon was a first-team all-league selection and the defensive player of the year, while Cole made second-team all-league.
“We’re deeper than they are,” Stotler said. “We’ve had good defense, but have to stop turning the ball over. Those two (NWAC tournament) games didn’t mean anything ... obviously they got us to the Final Four, but now we’re 0-0. It’s one game or go home, so we want to keep doing what we have and have less turnovers.”
The Riverhawks will open with a lineup of Powell (19.3 points, 9.2 rebounds), Stotler (15.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 4.0 blocked shots), sophomore Bria Thames (16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds), freshman Taylor Stricklin (16.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists) and Grenfell (4 points, 3.6 assists).
Sophomore Merrily Jones (8.2 points, 5.3 rebounds), and freshmen Kalli Frieze (3.4 points, 2.4 rebounds) and Tynesha Parnell (3.5 points, 3 assists) are among the six reserves.
TOURNAMENT NOTES — Powell’s career-high 46-point performance on 21 of 23 shooting against Columbia Basin last Friday tied Sarah Coleman for fifth place on the all-time UCC single-game scoring list. Ashli Payne (2014) and Heidi Buehler (2001) share the record with 53-point games. “I didn’t know Daisy had 46 until the game was over,” Stotler said. “We were so proud of her. We’re going to keep feeding it to her because no one can guard her.” ... In the men’s tournament, No. 8 Peninsula (21-10) meets No. 7 Linn-Benton (22-9) and No. 2 Portland (26-5) faces No. 5 North Idaho (23-8) in Saturday’s semifinals ... Dave Stricklin on his three contributing freshmen — Taylor Stricklin (his daughter), Frieze and Parnell. “They’re the difference. They’re not really freshmen anymore because they’ve played a lot more games than they played last year in high school. They give us more scoring and all of them can make things happen.” ... Dave Stricklin expects Walla Walla, which lost to Spokane in the title game last year, to beat Big Bend. “Big Bend has been the surprise of the tournament so far. If they’re able to pull off a win, that would be the upset of the year. Walla Walla is exactly in the same spot we are. They have eight sophomores who lost to Spokane and have been waiting all year to redeem themselves” ... The Riverhawks have two freshmen who are redshirting this year in Douglas High product Darian Mitchell and Scio’s Kim Ortiz. “We’ll have some people who’ll have some big shoes to fill,” coach Stricklin said. “Darian will be a force next year.”