Bearcats Top Loggers 67-57 to Clinch Share of NWC Regular Season Title

Carolyn Ho drives past a defender near he top of the key.
Carolyn Ho (Sr., G, Parker, CO/Ponderosa HS)

By Charlie McGuire, Athletic Communications Assistant

SALEM, Ore. – The Willamette University women's basketball team hosted the University of Puget Sound in a match-up of the top two teams in the Northwest Conference on Saturday, February 10. The Bearcats built a big lead in the first half and held off a late rally by the Loggers to win 67-57 and clinch at least a share of the regular season Northwest Conference title. The Bearcats also clinched the top seed in the NWC Tournament set for February 23-24.

Willamette jumped out to a 34-17 lead at halftime. The win improved Willamette to 12-2 in the NWC and to 15-8 overall. Puget Sound moved to 10-4 in the NWC and to 16-7 on the year. Willamette holds a two-game lead in the conference on Puget Sound, Whitman College (10-4), and Pacific University (10-4).

All four teams will fill the NWC Tournament bracket. While the Bearcats have clinched the #1 seed, the other three qualifying teams will battle over the final two regular season games for the #2, #3, and #4 seeds.

The Bearcats had a solid start, jumping out to a 7-4 lead while drawing five fouls on the Loggers before the first media break at the 4:13 mark. After the break, Ashley Collins (Sr., P, Chino Hills, CA/Chino Hills HS) hit a pair of free throws, followed by a three-pointer from Jasmine Shigeno (Sr., G, Brush Prairie, WA/Hockinson HS) to stretch the lead to 12-4.

Peyton Gardner (So., G, Bend, OR/ Bend HS) finished a nice assist from Kaitlin Imai (So., G, Santa Cruz, CA/Scotts Valley) to make the score 16-8 in the final minute of the first quarter. Caroline Ho (Sr., G, Parker, CO/Ponderosa HS) drained a pair of free throws to give the hosts an 18-10 advantage at the end of the period, pulling down four rebounds before the first intermission.

Puget Sound continued a consistent full court press to start the second period with the Bearcats able to handle the pressure. Imai buried a three-pointer to give Willamette its biggest lead of the game at 21-10 in the opening minute.

Imai drew the third foul on the Loggers' Autumn Hill, sending her to bench and hitting a pair of free throws to extend the lead to 23-11, early in the second stanza. Ho broke through the press and sped downhill, finding Collins on the base line for a 10-foot jumper to put the Bearcats on top, 25-11, with 5:21 remaining in the half.

Puget Sound continued to struggle from the field, missing nine three-pointers while hitting just four field-goals with 3:12 left in the first half. Ava Kitchin (Sr, P, Redmond, OR/Redmond HS) converted a three-point play to stretch the margin to 28-11.

Fouls plagued the Loggers as Willamette built the lead to 32-11. The relentless defense held the visitors to just one point before a pair of free throws from Sarah Skaggs with 1:30 to go in the half. Gardner answered with a dime to Collins for a 34-13 lead with just over a minute to play.

The visitors gained a touch of momentum to cut the deficit to 34-17 at halftime. Imai led the Bearcats with nine points, two steals and a pair of assists in the opening 20 minutes. Ho did a little of everything, scoring six points to go with seven rebounds and three steals. A balanced offensive attack saw Collins and Kitchin add six and five points, respectively. Willamette went 11 for 11 from the free throw line.

Willamette held Puget Sound to just 5-of-32 shooting in the first half and forced the Loggers to go 0 for 15 from the three-point line. Paige Gerhart led Puget with six points and five rebounds while Hill controlled eight rebounds before leaving the game with the early foul trouble.

Elyse Waldal (Jr., F, Snohomish, WA/Glacier Peak HS) opened the second half with a three-pointer from the corner. Ho followed up with a fast break lay-up before the Loggers looked to make a run. Kennedy Brown hit back-to-back three-pointers to cut the margin to 39-24.

Puget Sound chipped away to trail 41-28, at the five-minute media timeout. Imai countered with a big three-pointer to give the Bearcats a 44-30 lead with under four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Ho blocked a shot at the buzzer, but the visitors finished the period with a 9-4 run to head into the fourth trailing 50-39.

An early bucked cut the lead to single digits to open the final period. The Loggers added three free throws to pull within six with just under nine minutes on the clock, 50-44. Waldal buried a three to put the Bearcats back in front by nine.

Kitchin added a pair of free throws to make the score, 55-44, with just under seven minutes to play. Ho came away with her fifth steal of the game and grabbed an offensive rebound, but the Bearcats were unable to capitalize.

Puget Sound added a free throw and a short jumper to make the score 55-47. Waldal answered with a big turnaround jumper from the foul line. Addison Reardon came back with a three-pointer for Puget Sound.

Collins was fouled after an offensive rebound. She hit one-of-two, but Waldal pulled down the second shot with an offensive rebound. Megan River (Sr., G, Turnwater, WA/A.G. West Black Hills HS) hit a runner in the lane to stretch the lead back to 10 with 3:15 remaining.

The Bearcats held on defense and Collins knocked down a pair of free throws to make the score 62-50. At 63-54, Kitchin found Ho after a defensive rebound for a break away lay-up. Brown was fouled on a three-point attempt but was only able to convert 1-of-3 from the line with 1:10 on the clock.

River buried a short jumper to pretty much close out the game as the Bearcats held on for a 67-57 victory. Willamette completed a sweep of the Loggers after winning on the road at Puget Sound, 70-62, on January 12.

Four players reached double figures for the Bearcats, led by Imai with a game-high 15 points. Imai went 5 for 6 from the free throw line, while adding four rebounds, three assists and two steals. Collins went 5 for 6 from the line as well, netting 11 points to go with seven rebounds.

Waldal knocked down a trio of three-pointers to finish with 11 points while Ho tallied 10 points, 12 rebounds, five steals and four assists, going 4-for-4 from the foul line. Kitchin finished with seven points and four rebounds. River added six points, five assists and five rebounds on the night.

Gerhert of Puget Sound topped the Loggers with 14 points, while Autumn Hill grabbed 11 rebounds. The Loggers shot just 29.7% for the game (19 of 64) and finished 3 of 29 (10.3%) on three-point shots.

As a team, Willamette went 19 of 21 (90.5%) from the free throw line. They close out the regular season next weekend, traveling to George Fox University on Friday night before hosting Lewis & Clark on Saturday, February 17. The Bearcats will also celebrate Senior Night on Saturday with the opening tip-off set for 4 p.m. PST.