WWU Vikings

Bench play key to Vikings’ turnaround

Every couple of years, it seems Western Washington University basketball coach Carmen Dolfo strikes gold on a recruiting class.

It has shown in this year’s senior class, with four seniors all making significant contributions and a junior, who would have been a senior if not for an injury last season.

But a team needs more than just seniors and the Vikings’ sophomores have proven their worth.

Aside from Taylor Peacocke, the WWU sophomores, which includes forwards Kiana Gandy, Tia Briggs, Rachel Albert and guard Aleisha Hathaway, all come off the bench.

Still, they’ve found a way to change the game this year.

“I think they’ve come in and worked hard. They’re athletic and they make things happen and they have confidence,” Dolfo said of her bench. “They’ve really to me made a difference in this later part of the season.”

The bench has been vital for the Vikings once Great Northwest Athletic Conference play started in January. In a league that features a heavy travel schedule, tired legs become prevalent.

“With fatigue in this whole league and the travel that we have, that’s such a key component,” Dolfo said. “That’s why our bench is so strong because with the travel it gives people breaks.”

Highlighting that bench play is Gandy and Briggs. Both average around 20 minutes per game and although their contributions in terms of points scored isn’t much — they average 12.7 points per game combined — the two have a way of making a difference.

Briggs is the backup post behind starting center Kayla Bernsen. She is a strong player who rebounds the ball, plays good defense and has a post move or two that can get her to the rim, Dolfo said.

Gandy is very athletic and uses her speed to change the pace of a game. Her defense is also a strong suit and she can attack the basket. She’s also trying to get better at her jump shot to make her more dynamic.

“I would say just looking to step up and attack the basket and not thinking ‘Oh, a senior will do it,’” Gandy said of how she’s improved since her freshman season. “That’s something I’ve really honed in on.”

Gandy is watched from the crowd most games by her father, Joe, who played at WWU from 1982 to 1984. Joe was the reason Gandy got into basketball at the age of 6 and has been with her every step of the way since, whether it was as a coach, cheerleader or support system.

After having three daughters, Joe told them, “Well, one of you has to play basketball,” Gandy said.

Gandy found success with the sport and never looked back.

“Me and my dad are basically best friends,” Gandy said. “We play basketball all the time. He’s the reason why I’m here.”

While being close enough to home, which for Gandy is Des Moines to have her parents watch her play was a factor in committing to WWU, she said her father never pushed her to play for the Vikings.

“It was always my own decision,” Gandy said. “I think he’s really happy that I chose Western. That’s where he wanted me to go but he never influenced me to come here at all.”

Like many players that end up in NCAA Division II, Gandy was a star for Mt. Rainier High School.

The transition to the bench at the college level changed the way Gandy looked at the game.

“It definitely slows everything down,” Gandy said. “Just learning the game in a more strategic way has really helped.”

While the focus is on this season, it’s easy to see the Vikings have a bright future.

After this senior class departs, the sophomores will definitely step into a much larger role.

“I think they’ve got a lot of competitive people, they’re athletic and they’re hard workers,” Dolfo said. “I think they have a good future and I’m glad they’re getting as much experience as they are when they’re young.”

If the sophomores continue to improve, it looks like Dolfo will graduate another talented class in two years.