BELLINGHAM - Western Washington University junior Sarah Hill was so happy with the number of Starburst candies she had in a gift bag that she offered them to everyone in the media room at Sam Carver Gymnasium.
Senior Britt Harris, meanwhile was beaming about the stat sheet after seeing she had pulled down 10 rebounds to beat Hill and fellow teammate Trishi Williams.
"The ongoing joke is that Sarah and Trishi, it's a bet to see if I can out-rebound them," Harris explained. "It's an inside joke, and I did it. I did it."
She certainly did, but it was hard to believe that she, Hill or anybody on Western's roster had any energy to joke around after the physical battle they had just been through with Cal State Monterey Bay in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Women's Basketball West Regional on Monday, March 18.
The Vikings' toughness was tested both physically and mentally by the scrappy Otters, but WWU managed to hold them off for a 71-63 victory.
For the second game in the regional, the Vikings had five players score in double figures, led by Harris, who capped off a double-double with a game-high 14 points. Williams and Corinn Waltrip each had 13, while Hill at 12.
Western (27-3) moves on to a 6 p.m. regional final Tuesday, March 18, against Great Northwest Athletic Conference rival Simon Fraser (25-5).
"We keep saying our goal is GNAC and then some," Harris said. "We got the GNAC and now we're working on our then some. It's neat to see the goals that you've been working for four years starting to come through."
It is the Vikings' third trip to the D-II regional final and their first since 2002, but it certainly didn't come easy.
"These players have worked for it," WWU coach Carmen Dolfo said. "This game is kind of indicative of all year, where we can kind of go up and down, but we find a way, and we find a way together."
For second time in three days, Western had to find a way together to overcome a frustrating first half.
Vikings passes repeatedly seemed to be just a little off their mark, and the Otters (20-9), whose man-to-man defense was stuck on WWU players like duct tape, were able to capitalize for eight steals and 13 total turnovers in the half.
The result was 14 points off turnovers and an 8-2 advantage on fast-break points for the Otters.
"They were a very, very physical team probably one of the most physical teams we've faced," Dolfo said. "Everything in the post was just pushed. I think that it was a little bit shocking. We got ourselves into a turnover situation, and we didn't take care of the ball."
CSMB's Jessica Fontenette hit a runner at the buzzer to cut WWU's lead to 32-31.
Unlike on Saturday, March 16, when the Vikings opened the second half with a 12-0 run, it took Western a while to get some breathing room in the second half, but another 12-0 run one that started with a pair of free throws from Harris with 12:18 to play and lasted through a 3-pointer from reserve Jenni White with 10:04 to play gave the Vikings a 52-40 advantage.
But the Otters stormed back to cut their deficit to as few as two points, 52-50, with 5:58 to go.
Williams stemmed the 10-0 CSMB run with a jumper off an assist from Harris, before Katie Colard hit a 3-pointer and Harris hit another jumper to make it 59-50 with 4:31 to play.
The Otters once again responded to trim the lead to three with a 6-0 run, capped off by a 3-point play from Brittani Jefferson with 3:39 to play.
But just when the Vikings seemed to be in trouble, Hill responded by beating the shot clock with a runner from the left side with 3:11 left.
"They never took a play off, so we knew that every possession mattered," said Hill, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds. "It was fun, as Carm said, to be the sneaky player. I'm probably not on the scouting report as a scorer."
Harris hit a couple more free throws to make it 63-56 with 1:45 to play, and the Otters never got closer than five the rest of the way.
"It was a really physical game," Harris said. "There was a lot of pushing and battling back and forth between players. It was a good game, but yeah, it was physical."
The Vikings got a big lift off the bench from White, who had 10 points and two steals, as her quickness seemed to give WWU a "spark," Dolfo said.
Western also had four players, Williams, Harris, Waltrip and Colard, finish with four assists in the game.
"I think that's been our bread and butter all year," Dolfo said. "There's not one go-to on our team. We try to find the open person and know we have a number of people that can score. That can make us hard to guard, because they're not just looking at one thing."
Simon Fraser already has experienced trying to stop that attack three times this season.
The Vikings and Clan split their regular season meetings, with Western winning 59-57 on a buzzer-beater in Bellingham, and WWU scored a 60-40 win over Simon Fraser in the GNAC Championship game on March 9.
"They've been playing well in this tournament," Dolfo said. "Certainly what happened last week down in Olympia is erased from our minds, because we know what a great team they are. They've got great 3-point shooters and an inside game. We know it's going to be every possession."
WESTERN WASHINGTON 71, CAL ST. MONTEREY BAY 63
CAL ST. MONTEREY BAY (20-9)
JEFFERSON, Brittani 5-9 7-7 17; FONTENETTE, Jessica 4-8 3-5 11; PADILLA, Danielle 3-6 1-3 8; CORGEL, Stefanie 3-13 1-1 8; HOLCOMB, Holly 2-7 2-4 7; BECKMAN, Nikki 2-7 0-0 5; MUNSCH, Gabby 2-7 0-0 4; LEWIS, Britnee 1-1 0-0 2; BAILEY, Angelique 0-3 1-2 1; MORGAN, Ashley 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-62 15-22 63.
WESTERN WASHINGTON (27-3)
Harris,Britt 5-8 4-4 14; Waltrip,Corinn 3-7 6-7 13; Williams,Trishi 4-7 5-6 13; Hill,Sarah 5-7 2-6 12; White,Jenni 3-4 3-3 10; Colard,Katie 2-9 0-0 5; Donaldson,Sydney 2-2 0-0 4; Bernsen,Kayla 0-5 0-0 0; Pounds,Marcel 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-49 20-26 71.
Half: WWU 32, CSMB 31
3-point goals--Cal St. Monterey Bay 4-16 (BECKMAN, Nikki 1-2; HOLCOMB, Holly 1-2; CORGEL, Stefanie 1-8; PADILLA, Danielle 1-3; MORGAN, Ashley 0-1), Western Washington 3-10 (White,Jenni 1-2; Colard,Katie 1-5; Waltrip,Corinn 1-2; Hill,Sarah 0-1). Fouled out--Cal St. Monterey Bay-None, Western Washington-Harris,Britt; Williams,Trishi. Rebounds--Cal St. Monterey Bay 32 (MUNSCH, Gabby 9), Western Washington 37 (Harris,Britt 10). Assists--Cal St. Monterey Bay 11 (CORGEL, Stefanie 4), Western Washington 17 (Waltrip,Corinn 4; Harris,Britt 4; Williams,Trishi 4; Colard,Katie 4). Total fouls--Cal St. Monterey Bay 21, Western Washington 21. Technical fouls--Cal St. Monterey Bay-None, Western Washington-None. A-670
Reach David Rasbach at email@example.com or call 715-2271.