Written by

Heather Johns

WALLA WALLA -- Heather Johns could have announced her intentions each time she crossed the midcourt stripe.

A whispered warning to her defender, a copy of her flight plan stitched on a banner hanging from the wall, a play-by-play narration of her thought-process broadcast over the PA...

It is highly unlikely any of these would have helped the University of Puget Sound keep Whitman's junior point guard out of the lane.

"She," said teammate Meghan White, "was unreal."

Johns exploded for a career-high 30 points in her first game since becoming the first player in program history to be named Northwest Conference Player of the Year, and the top-ranked Missionaries blazed into the conference title game by beating UPS 77-60 in a tournament semifinal on Thursday at Sherwood Center.

"Whenever she touched the ball, you knew she was going to make a good move and finish," White said of Johns. "She carried us through that game."

Whitman (26-0) will host rival Whitworth at 7 p.m. Saturday for the conference championship, another opportunity for a home crowd White called the best she's seen all year to pack the house for the next rendition of Johns' dribble-drive ballet.

"She's so patient," said Missionaries head coach Michelle Ferenz. "She lets the defense set, then she attacks. She doesn't force."

Johns coasted through the smallest seams, like a record needle gliding over vinyl, for high-percentage shot after high-percentage shot. She made 12 of 18 field goals and rarely took a shot outside the paint.

This was no one-woman show, rather a case where Whitman's biggest matchup advantage was too lethal not to exploit ad infinitum. The Missionaries pounded the ball inside for their first three buckets -- one by White, two by post Sarah Anderegg -- and that seemed to temporarily distract UPS from Johns' presence.

She made her first two shots. The second tied it at 11-all six minutes in -- and sparked a fire that never went out.

"In the first couple of minutes, we got it into the post," Johns said. "The defense shifted and opened up some lanes for me to drive. Once I hit my first two (shots), I could feel it."

Led by junior Amanda Forshay, the Loggers hung around in the first half. But Johns pushed them to the ropes with a dazzling array of leaners, jumpers and lay-ins down the stretch, pouring in 13 points and assisting on 3-pointers by Chelsi Brewer and Tiffani Traver in a seven minute, 33 second span.

Whitman's 41-26 halftime lead seemed even safer in the early moments of the second half, as some defensive tinkering helped dry up Forshay's looks.

"We looked to deny her the ball, make her catch it farther from the basket," White explained. "We helped earlier and made her hesitant to make her first cut."

But UPS crawled all the way back to a six-point deficit at the 10:23 mark, a comeback accelerated by the absence of Johns.

"I was cramping in my calves," said Johns, who asked out of the game at the 12:15 mark of the second half to stretch. "It always seems to happen in big games.

"I knew I could come back for the last seven minutes," she added, "but it sucked to come out."

Alysse Ketner took over at the point and held her own, making two free throws and swiping a steal. Anderegg, her minutes docked by foul trouble, feathered in a long jumper moments before Johns checked back in that pushed the Whitman lead back to eight.

Johns drained her next shot, a jumper over two, taller defenders that put the Whitman lead back into double digits. After White swished a turnaround jumper on the baseline, Johns made two free throws, then drove the lane for a basket.

Taylor Jones hit a 3-pointer with 6:19 to go to pull UPS to within 65-53, but Johns finished a drive with a left-handed kiss off the window, Ketner and Anderegg made one free throw apiece, and White scored inside off Johns' sixth assist of the game.

"That's a good team. They can flat-out score," Ferenz said of UPS. "I'm really proud that we adjusted in the second half and got some stops."

Anderegg had 12 points and a steal for Whitman, White had six points and 12 rebounds and Traver added 12 points. Hailey Ann Maeda came off the bench to snag six boards, including a hustle play for a long offensive rebound inside the final two minutes Ferenz called "the dagger."

That Maeda rebound also allowed Whitman to run the clock and force a foul -- giving Ferenz the opportunity to sub for Johns and let the crowd give her a standing ovation.