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MSU Billings women falter as Western Washington wins second straight GNAC crown

Aspen Giese
Posted at 11:00 PM, Mar 09, 2024

(Editor's note: Great Northwest Athletic Conference release.)

ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Western Washington didn’t lead for very long in the final quarter of the GNAC Women’s Basketball Championships, but it led when it mattered most, coming through with a defensive masterpiece to take a 54-52 victory over No. 1 seed Montana State Billings and make it two tournament titles in a row.

The No. 2 seeded Vikings were led to their second championship over the Yellowjackets in as many years by 17 points from both Brooke Walling and Mason Oberg.

With five rebounds, two assists and a steal in the final after flirting with a triple double in the semifinals, Walling became just the second player in tournament history to be named the GNAC Championships MVP for two consecutive years, following in the footsteps of Alaska Anchorage’s Kiki Robertson in 2015 and 2016.

Oberg was tremendous for the Vikings in the final, shooting 75% from long range and delivering WWU its only lead of the fourth quarter on a 3-point dagger from an offensive rebound by Walling with just 1:29 left on the clock.

Regular season champion Montana State Billings was led by a game-high 18 points from reigning GNAC Player of the Year Kola Bad Bear. Almost half of those points came from the free throw line as Bad Bear went 8-for-10 from the stripe.

She also finished with four rebounds and two blocks. Kortney Nelson delivered a game-high 10 rebounds to go along with 12 points for her fourth-career double double and her second in as many games. Nelson’s line also included four assists, a block and a steal.

The first half proved to be a defensive battle particularly in the second quarter where neither team connected on a shot from the field until just under three minutes went by.

Some of the Jackets’ biggest points of the first half came as Dyauni Boyce connected on a layup to record her 1,000th career point. The Vikings built their first lead of the game off of Oberg’s first 3-pointer of the night, which WWU up 13-10 in the first quarter. That bucket sparked a 6-0 run for Western Washington as the Vikings held MSUB scoreless for the last three minutes of the period.

One of the Vikings’ biggest defensive strengths came to the forefront early on as they denied the Yellowjackets on each of their first seven 3-point attempts.

Coming into the game, WWU allowed opponents to shoot a conference-low 36% from 3-point range. The ‘Jackets didn’t hit a three until the third minute of the second quarter as Shayla Montague broke the long-range drought by knocking one down from the top of the 3-point arc for the first points from the field in the period.

Along with Walling’s steady point production, fellow Western Washington senior Stephanie Peterson responded to back-to-back 3-pointers by MSUB’s Aspen Giese with a 3-pointer of her own to give the Vikings their final lead of the half.

Peterson finished the night with eight points six assists, three steals, a block, and eight rebounds, six of which she picked up over the first 20 minutes. The long-range stops and rebounds proved to be a key for WWU heading into the half as the team went into the break with a 27-25 lead behind 13 first-half points by Walling.

Aspen Garrison also notched eight points on the night and was a key player for the Vikings en route to repeating as tournament champions. Garrison featured in almost every statistical category in her first GNAC Championships final appearance, also tallying seven rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block

The second half was a close as they come, with neither team able to build more than a four-point lead until the ‘Jackets pulled out to a brief seven-point advantage, their largest of the night, during a 9-2 run in the third quarter.

Montana State Billings hung onto that lead until the end of the third quarter finishing the frame with a 42-37 lead. That’s when the Western Washington defense found its first-half form once again.

After a pair of Bad Bear free throws with 8:19 to go in the game, the Vikings completely shut down the Yellowjackets’ offense for over three minutes, going on a 6-0 run to tie the game at 46-46 with Peterson’s second 3-pointer of the night.

From there, Oberg and Walling took over the show, combining for eight points to grit out the victory and stun the ‘Jackets for a second straight year.

The Vikings finished the game outshooting the Yellowjackets 40.4% to 31.5% from the field and 45.5% to 16% from beyond the 3-point arc.

The defensive duel goes down in history as the fourth-lowest scoring GNAC Championships final in tournament history with 106 total points scored. The title is Western Washington’s fourth in program history.

With the victory, Western Washington (23-6, 14-4 GNAC) earns the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Championships.

Regionally-ranked Montana State Billings (26-6, 16-2) and Alaska Anchorage (19-9, 13-5) will have to wait until tomorrow’s NCAA Selection Show at 7:30 p.m. (PST) to see if they will make the tournament field.