Women's GNAC tournament coming to Bellingham

No. 1 Western hosts, has chance to dance yet again
March 1, 2023 at 5:05 a.m.
Western’s Brooke Walling sinks two of her 12 points Feb. 2 in a 73-41 win over Northwest Nazarene.
Western’s Brooke Walling sinks two of her 12 points Feb. 2 in a 73-41 win over Northwest Nazarene. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

The road to the national tournament starts in Bellingham and Western Washington University women's basketball team has another shot to dance. 

The Vikings concluded the regular season last week and claimed the No. 1 seed in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships tournament. 

After three days of much-needed rest, Western is back in the gym Monday to prepare for its next matchup, head coach Carmen Dolfo said. 

"Everyone's really excited. It's great to be able to have the GNACs at home in Bellingham, and to have the support of our crowd makes a big difference," Dolfo said. "We're trying to just focus on one game at a time and the next game's the biggest game and not look anywhere beyond that." 

Western built a 22-3 season — going 16-2 in the GNAC — in the wake of last year's national championship run. The deep Viking roster has been problematic for opponents, and the season has shown that any player could have a big game on any given night. 

On top of finishing the regular season ranked No. 12 in the nation in the D2SIDA Media Poll, Western ranks second in the nation in assists per game (19.6), blocks per game (6) and three-point percentage (38.6%). 

The team shot 48.8% from the field during the season, which is the third-best mark in the nation. Western's 11.4 rebounding margin — much of which comes on defense — is fourth in the nation. 

The Vikings rank first in those categories in the GNAC, except rebounding, in which Central Washington took the cake. 

Seven members of Western's roster averaged seven points per game or higher, led by junior forward Brooke Walling, who averaged 13.4 points. The team averaged 40.9 rebounds per game, again led by Walling who averaged 9.2 rebounds per game. 

Walling has plenty of support, evident through her ability to dish a team-high 88 assists this season. The sharp-shooting redshirt freshman guard Mason Oberg led the Vikings with 39 three-pointers this season in just 19 games. Senior forward Katrina Gimmaka has been a rock for the Vikings, connecting on a team-high 58.3% of her shots. 

The Vikings swept all GNAC opponents during the season except for Montana State University Billings, which was able to best the Vikings twice in dramatic fashion. The Yellowjackets receive the other first-round bye on the other side of the bracket. 

No. 2 Montana State University Billings (23-6, 14-4 GNAC) 

The Yellowjackets' strong defense was the best in the GNAC, allowing an average of only 58.2 points to opponents. MSUB paired that with the third-best shooting percentage in the GNAC and a conference-high 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio to claim the No. 2 seed. 

No. 3 Central Washington (20-7, 12-6 GNAC) 

The Wildcats enter the postseason averaging 31.7 defensive rebounds per game, the highest in the entire nation. Central senior center Samantha Bowman brought down 400 rebounds in the regular season, which makes her the top board-getter in the nation. The 6-foot-3 post also leads the GNAC with 21.6 points per game. The team also made 258 threes this season, the most in the conference. 

No. 4 Alaska Anchorage (18-9, 10-8 GNAC) 

The Seawolves upset MSUB to close out the regular season. The team from up north is third in the GNAC in scoring and averaged a conference-high 11.4 steals, 7.59 turnover margin and 13.5 offensive rebounds. The offense is led by junior guard Vishe' Rabb who averages 16.8 points per game. 

No. 5 Seattle Pacific (14-12, 9-9 GNAC) 

The Falcons were the lowest-scoring offense in the conference this season, but consequently allowed the third-fewest points, resulting in a meek 2.4 scoring differential throughout the season. Senior guard Ashley Alter and sophomore guard Maya Hoff have helped carry the offense, both being top-20 scorers in the GNAC. 

No. 6 Simon Fraser (10-12, 8-10 GNAC) 

The Red Leafs claimed the final spot in the tournament with the help of Western Oregon knocking off Northwest Nazarene. Junior forward Jessica Wisotzki averaged 21.3 points per game in the regular season, second to only Bowman. The team's average of 4.8 blocked shots ranks second in the GNAC. The team also connected on 174 total 3-pointers, the second-most in the conference. 

The tournament tips off on Thursday, March 2 with the quarterfinal round. The semifinals will be played Friday with the championship game on Saturday. The winner of the championship game gets an automatic bid to the national tournament. 

"I'm just hoping that we can get some great support from Bellingham," Dolfo said. "Come watch us play because we're a fun team to watch." 

Western will play either No. 4 Alaska Anchorage or No. 5 Seattle Pacific at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 3. 

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