WALLA WALLA, Wash. - With the game tied at 57 with 3:27 left to play, the Whitman women's basketball team unleashed an 11-2 scoring spurt and polished off a 68-62 victory over George Fox Saturday night in Sherwood Center to claim a share of the Northwest Conference championship -- its first title since the 1987-88 season.
Winning 12 of its last 13 games, Whitman finished with a 19-6 regular season record and a 13-3 mark in the NWC, good enough for a first-place tie with Puget Sound.
Whitman's good fortune turned sour soon after the game's conclusion, when Puget Sound won a coin toss to claim the NWC's automatic berth to the NCAA Div. III playoffs. The coin toss was conducted by the NWC Commissioner's office in a telephone conference call involving the athletic directors from both schools.
Puget Sound earned its share of the NWC title by winning 66-55 at Linfield Saturday evening.
The NCAA Div. III playoffs, which begin Wednesday, start with a field of 50 teams. Whitman was eligible for one of six at-large berths available to conference runner-ups from around the country. On Sunday, however, a national selection committee passed over Whitman in filling the at-large spots (click here for a news release on the NCAA selection process).
In Saturday's game, first-year forward Sarah Laird scored 15 points, hitting four of eight 3-point shots, to power Whitman's offense. Sophomore Lizzy Washburn, also a forward, added 12 points, 10 rebounds and four assists before fouling out with 25 seconds left in the game. Sophomore guard Laura Vertatschitsch contributed 11 points five boards and four assists.
Katie Patneaude, another member of Whitman's talented first-year class, just missed a double-double, scoring nine points to go with eight rebounds. Sophomore Megan Higgins and first-year player Shea Morrissey scored eight and six points, respectively, off the Missionary bench.
Trailing 30-29 at halftime, George Fox scored the first two points of the second half to take only its second lead of the night. Whitman responded with a 13-5 scoring spree to regain control. After Laird hit a 3-pointer to spark the run, Patneaude and Vertatschitsch tallied six points apiece to put the Missionaries in front 43-34 with 14:14 left to play.
A few minutes later, Laird nailed another trey that led to a 52-40 Whitman lead at the 8:32 mark. George Fox refused to go quietly into the night, outscoring the Missionaries 17-5 to pull even at 57-all with 3:27 remaining. After Denise Kirstein, one of two seniors on the Whitman roster, hit one of two free throws, Vertatschitsch drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Washburn then scored off an offensive rebound with 56 seconds left to give the Missionaries a 63-57 cushion.
Free throws, five by George Fox and four by Whitman, finished the night's scoring.
Whitman jumped in front early in the first half, grabbing a 20-9 lead after eight minutes of play. Laird and Washburn tallied 16 of the first 20 Missionary points. George Fox closed out the half on a 6-2 roll to trail 30-29 at intermission.
The Whitman women's team, picked in one preseason poll to finish last this season, set school records for most wins in a season (19), most consecutive wins (nine), and highest winning percentage (.760).
When the Whitman women's basketball program celebrated its last title in 1988, the Northwest Conference was known as the Northwest Conference of Independent Colleges and included just six schools, three less than is the case now.
The 1988 championship team, coached by John Wilcox, finished with records of 15-10 and 8-2. The senior co-captains that year were Cathy Crosslin, who returned to coach the Missionaries from 1996 through 2000, and Susan Hubbard Sakamoto, who was named last year to Whitman's Athletic Hall of Fame.
In the years preceding and following the 1987-88 championship season, Whitman was affiliated with the NAIA at the national level. For that one season, however, the Missionaries were affiliated with NCAA Div. III and did not receive a berth in the NCAA playoffs. The reason, Coach Wilcox said at the time, was that Whitman lost three of four games to NCAA Div. III schools during an early January trip to southern California.
Whitman and other members of the Northwest Conference shifted their affiliation back to NCAA Div. III in the mid-1990s.
Other members of Whitman's 1987-88 title team, in addition to Hubbard and Crosslin, were Julie Slocum, Anne McDonnell, Wendy Kimmel, Roseanne Hall, Keri Hall, Debby Richter, Kellee Magnuson, Susan Hatchett, Heather Brownell and Rene Brulotte.