The Umpqua Community College women’s basketball team heads to the Northwest Athletic Conference Championships with some momentum following a 79-78 comeback win over Lane on Monday in Eugene.
But there are some concerns for the No. 3-ranked Riverhawks (25-4), who face No. 6 North Idaho (20-8) at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Sweet 16 round at Everett Community College.
How will Umpqua handle the environment of NWAC tournament basketball? Taylor Stricklin, the lone sophomore on the team, is the only player with tournament experience.
“You look at the brackets and three of the top six NWAC teams will be eliminated the first day,” UCC coach Dave Stricklin said. “It’s not good bracketing and it’s going to be tough from the very beginning. You hope you possibly have an easier matchup in the first round, and it gives you a chance to have all the freshmen get acclimated.
“But for the most part they’re sophomores now, we’ve played enough games experience-wise. Now going back to the tournament none of them have been in that atmosphere. We’re hoping we don’t revert back to being a team of freshmen.”
The Riverhawks’ victory over Lane gave them a share of the South Region title and the league’s No. 1 seed. North Idaho is the No. 4 seed from the East.
“I’m really excited, and know all the other girls are, too,” UCC freshman guard Cielo Gonzalez said. “To be the No. 1 team (from the South) puts us in a great spot. They’ve doubted us all season, and we want to keep proving them wrong. With Taylor (Stricklin’s) leadership and everybody working hard, I feel like we can accomplish a lot of things.”
The Riverhawks finished second in the tournament last year, losing to Walla Walla in the title game.
Umpqua and North Idaho met on Dec. 16 in Coeur d’Alene, with the Riverhawks pulling out an 83-72 overtime win. Taylor Stricklin scored 35 points in that game, including a basket at the end of regulation to force OT, and Darian Mitchell added 24 points and 14 rebounds.
“Defense is a key for us,” Gonzalez said. “We need to get out on their shooters, close out and rebound. They have some bigs and shooters, and match up with us well.”
The Cardinals, who average 71.6 points a game, have four players averaging in double figures. Alivia Williams (14.1 points) and Heidi Sellman (13.4) lead the way. Sydnie Peterson came off the bench to score 20 against UCC in the first meeting.
The Riverhawks will open with a starting lineup of Taylor Stricklin (23.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists), Mitchell (17.1 points, 12.1 rebounds), Sienna Riggle (7.8 points, 7.3 rebounds), Lexi Woodard (6.3 points, 4.8 rebounds), and either Macie Reinen (5.7 points, 2.6 assists) or Lainey Rincon (1.8 points).
Gonzalez (12.2 points, 3.6 assists) is first off the bench.
Mitchell, a Douglas High product, was selected to the all-South Region first team and was named the freshman of the year. Gonzalez made the all-league second team.
Taylor Stricklin, the South Region MVP, leads the NWAC in scoring and 3-pointers made (123), while Mitchell is first in rebounding.
Umpqua is second in the NWAC in scoring (84.2), first in rebounding margin (15.9), second in total rebounds (46.5), second in field goal percentage (46) and third in assists (17.2).
“From the beginning of the year we’ve made a lot of progress,” Gonzalez said. “We came together as a team, and have grown as a family. We’re all very close, and on the court the chemistry is there. I love this team more than anything and don’t want it to end anytime soon.”
The North Idaho-Umpqua winner will play the Whatcom-Grays Harbor winner at 3 p.m. Sunday in the quarterfinals. Whatcom defeated the Riverhawks, 96-92, on Dec. 27.
The semifinal and championship rounds will be held the following weekend in Everett.
“I think there’s probably six or seven teams capable of winning it,” Dave Stricklin said. “Lane’s been ranked No. 1 all year and we beat them twice. If they’re the best team in the tournament, then we have as good a chance as anybody.”
In other first-round matchups involving South Region teams, Lane (26-3) meets No. 5 Walla Walla (20-9) at 4 p.m., No. 8 Mt. Hood (20-9) faces No. 2 Big Bend (25-4) at 10 a.m. and Clackamas (15-10) takes on No. 4 Wenatchee Valley (24-5) at 10 p.m.