WALLA WALLA - Coach Jeff Reinland has his Walla Walla men's basketball team back in the NWAACC Championships for the first time in three years.
And unlike any of the previous 10 teams that Reinland has taken to the tourney in his 17 seasons at WWCC, this year's Warriors got the job done first and foremost on the defensive end of the court.
"This," Reinland said emphatically, "is the best defensive club I have ever coached. Hands down, of all the teams I have taken to the tournament, this is the worst offensive team and the best defensive team."
Partly, perhaps, by necessity.
The Warriors went into the season with what Reinland considered to be a trio of prolific scorers in 6-foot-10 sophomore post Emery Henning, 6-4 sophomore wing Ben Searle and 6-3 freshman sharpshooter Jason Smith. But Searle was injured and lost for the season in the team's very first Eastern Division game.
Searle was averaging 18 points a game at the time. Furthermore, he was one of the team leaders.
"We lost quite a bit in terms of all that he could do on the floor," Reinland said. "And he was also a second-year guy that everybody on the team respected."
Six games after Searle went down, the Warriors found themselves at 3-3 in the division and headed into a home game against 6-0 Big Bend.
"We were beginning to wonder," Reinland admitted. "We were thinking we had our hands full."
However, it was at that point in the season when Reinland's players came to grips with the fact that Searle would not be back. They responded with a rousing 101-78 victory over the Vikings and finished the season on an eight-game winning streak.
The streak vaulted Walla Walla into a three-way tie for first place in the division along with Big Bend and Spokane, all three at 11-3. But because the Warriors swept Big Bend and split with Spokane, they had the best head-to-head record of the three and claimed the division's No. 1 seed to the NWAACC's in the process.
The Warriors, 19-5 overall, open tournament play against Linn-Benton (12-13), the fourth seed from the Southern Division. The game is slated for 2 p.m. Saturday in the Toyota Center in Kennewick.
Smith, who shoots 45 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, leads the Warriors in scoring with a 19.4 average. Henning is also in double figures at 17.7 points a game, and he leads WWCC rebounders with a 7.7 average.
After that, it's bits and pieces from an ever changing cast of characters.
Starting point guard Ryan Andrews, a 6-2 sophomore, averages six points a game and is the team's second-leading rebounder at 7.2 boards per game. Aaron VanderGraaf, a 6-1 soph, finally settled in as the fifth starter replacing Searle and also averages six points per game.
Aaron Corsi, a 6-7 freshman, also averages six points per game in a relief role, and 6-5 sophomore DJ Wright averages 5.8 points a game off the bench.
"We have a lot of guys who are capable of scoring who don't score that much," Reinland said. "VanderGraaf had a 20-point game against Big Bend and Wright has had a couple of games where he came in and scored 15-16 points.
"They are all capable, but our only consistent scorers left are Emery and Jason."
Defense is a different story.
"We're coaching as hard on defense and teaching the same things as we always have," Reinland said. "But this team was able to understand that they had to buy into it because we don't put up as many points.
"Once they started playing good defense, it was easy to buy into it."
The Warriors didn't face Linn-Benton during the regular season, but they saw the Roadrunners play three times during cross-over tournaments early in the season.
"They are not unlike us," Reinland said. "I think we match up pretty well. Athletically we are very similar. Heightwise we are a hair bigger with Emery. It's going to be an interesting matchup."
Reinland concedes that all 16 teams in the NWAACC field are dangerous, but he labels Western Division champion Tacoma (22-3) and South champ Chemeketa (22-2) as the favorites going into Saturday's first round.
"We lost to Tacoma 79-73 early on at a tournament in Linn-Benton," Reinland said. "And Searle scored 35 points for us in that game.
"Chemeketa is the best offensive team I've seen this year. They have talent and can put up a bunch of points. Tacoma does it the other way around by playing extremely good defense."
And as for his team's approach against Linn-Benton on Saturday?
"I think we are going to have to go out and establish Emery and Aaron (Corsi) inside right away," he said. "It's a bigger venue and depth perception is a little different, so it's very important to score early and often inside.
"And defensively, we'll do everything we can to hold them down."