KENNEWICK - It's time once and for all to decide exactly who is the Beast of the East.
And the women's NWAACC basketball championship in the process.
Walla Walla and Yakima, who fought to a standstill during the regular season to share the Eastern Division title with identical 13-1 records, collide for the third time here late this afternoon at the Toyota Center in the NWAACC Championships finale. Tipoff is slated for 4:30.
Walla Walla made it into its third championship game in coach Bobbi Hazeltine's 11 seasons at the helm with a stirring 72-69 come-from-behind semifinal victory Monday night over a Lane squad that lived up to its Titans nickname in every way. The Yaks then led most of the way in the second semifinal and escaped with a 75-74 victory over Clackamas.
The Warriors, now 27-1, suffered their only defeat of the season Jan. 20 in Yakima when the Yaks prevailed 54-48. Three weeks later in the Dietrich Dome, the Warriors returned the favor with a 66-59 triumph.
Now it's on to this afternoon's rubber match as Walla Walla goes for its second league title in school history. The Warriors were champions in 2001, Hazeltine's second season.
Yakima, 24-5 on the year, won back-to-back NWAACC titles in 1990-91.
"This just shows how good the East is," Hazeltine said as she and her players basked in the euphoria of Monday night's dramatic comeback. "We're in the title game, probably against Yakima, and Spokane and Columbia Basin are still playing for trophies."
Columbia Basin knocked off Mount Hood 63-61 Monday and Spokane defeated Umpqua 81-73. The Hawks and the Sasquatch met this morning at 10 to decide fifth and eighth places.
In today's other trophy-round games, Everett plays Centralia at noon to decide fourth and seventh places and Clackamas takes on Lane at 2 p.m. in the battle for third and sixth places. Everett stayed alive with a 72-62 victory over Clark and Centralia edged Skagit Valley 63-61.
Although the Warriors had little time to savor their sweet semifinal victory over Lane, it was certainly an effort worth recounting. A victory that was achieved with grit and determination as much as it was with pure basketball skills.
The Titans, with two 6-footers in their starting lineup plus a key 6-2 reserve, created all kinds of matchup problems for the Warriors at the defensive end. And Lane's sizeable height advantage also led to a lot of misdirected shots by the Walla Wallans, throughout the first half and well into the second.
Walla Walla fought back from seven points down to trail by just a basket, 34-32, at the intermission. But by taking the ball hard to the basket from along the baseline, the Titans connected on their first five shots of the second half and bolted to a 44-34 lead.
Lane enjoyed its biggest lead of the night, 56-44, when 6-0 Theresa Brown rebounded her own missed shot and scored a layin with 11:21 remaining in the game.
But by then, however, Walla Walla's Kati Isham was already beginning to feel it.
Isham, WWCC's sophomore star who had suffered through a season-low five-point game in Sunday's 64-55 quarterfinal victory over Centralia, accounted for 12 of her team's 32 points in the first half. She exploded for 17 more after the intermission, including a 3-pointer, three baseline drives for baskets and a pair of clutch free throws in the game's final eight minutes.
"We had never beaten Lane at the NWAACC tournament before, and it looked like we weren't going to again," Hazeltine said. "And then Kati took the game over."
Isham's 3-pointer came on the heels of a trey by backup point guard Shiann Dreadfulwater, who saw 19-plus minutes in relief of starting point Shelbi Isham. The two long balls narrowed Lane's advantage to 58-54.
Kati Isham scored again on a hard drive from the right baseline and Layne Tucker sank one-of-two free throws as the Warriors pulled to within a single point, 58-57, with 6:30 on the clock.
A free throw by Brown and a rebound basket by Lynette Minthorn, the Titans' 6-0 center out of Pendleton, restored a 61-57 Lane lead. But another baseline basket by Kati Isham and a dagger 3 by Tucker put the Warriors ahead 62-61 with 4:58 showing.
It was Walla Walla's first lead since the 11:02 mark of the first half.
"We were on Layne for not shooting the ball," Hazeltine said of her 5-5 sophomore guard. "She's a good shooter, but she's so unselfish.
"Finally coach Tucker (Paula, one of WWCC's assistant coaches), Layne's mom, got after her for not shooting. Between the two of us getting on her, she went back in and made that big shot."
But the game was far from over.
Warriors sophomore post Nancy Johnson sank a 17-footer and a short banker - sandwiched around a Lane 3-pointer by Susan Smith - and Walla Walla led 66-64 with 2:48 left. But Smith and Brown each halved two-shot free throw opportunities and the score was deadlocked at 66-66 47 seconds later.
Then it was Kati Isham again, driving hard to the hoop for a basket and then drawing a foul that led to a pair of free throws and a 70-66 Warriors advantage with 41.4 seconds remaining.
But before the Walla Walla fans could get back in their seats, Lane's Sarah Brolsma Whitfield unleashed a long 3 that hit nothing but net and the Titans were back within a point, 70-69, and 30.1 seconds still glowed on the scoreboard clock.
But that also meant that once the Warriors were able to successfully inbound the ball, the Titans were forced to foul. And although WWCC cashed in on just two of six chances from the line - one free throw each by Ciarra Silverthorn and Johnson - it proved to be enough as the Titans turned the ball over once, missed twice from close range on their next possession and missed badly on a desperation toss from near midcourt as the final horn sounded.
Kati Isham, who averaged 22 points a game during the regular season, finished with 29 points, six rebounds and four assists. Johnson was Walla Walla's only other double-figure scorer with 15 points, and she shared team rebounding honors with sophomore Kayla Hutcheson, each with 10.
Despite Lane's size, the Warriors won the rebounding battle for the third straight game by outjumping and outhustling the Titans 53-42.
Minthorn led Lane in scoring with 15 points, and she also collected eight rebounds before fouling out in the final minute. Brown, who also fouled out in the final minute, finished her night with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Brolsma Whitfield was a third Titan in double figures with 12 points.
Lane, the No. 2 seed out of the NWAACC's Southern Division, saw its season record slip to 24-5.
LANE (69) - Minthorn 5-9 5-6 15, May 2-4 0-0 6, Wilson 0-1 0-0 0, Smith 2-6 1-2 6, Brolsman Whitfield 5-10 0-0 12, Ficek 2-5 2-2 6, Brown 5-15 2-5 12, Huff 4-6 0-0 8, Rich 1-1 0-4 2, Kronberger 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 27-61 10-19 69.
WALLA WALLA (72) - Dreadfulwater 1-4 2-4 5, Wolff 0-2 0-0 0, S. Isham 0-3 0-0 0, VanderEsch 1-3 0-1 2, Tucker 2-3 2-5 7, K. Isham 9-23 9-11 29, Johnson 6-15 3-5 15, Hutcheson 4-7 0-1 8, Silverthorn 2-8 1-2 6, Berghammer 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 25-70 17-29 72.
Halftime - Lane 34, WWCC 32. 3-point goals - Lane 5-17 (May 2-4, Smith 1-4,Brolsma Whitfield 2-6, Ficek 0-3), WWCC 5-19 (Dreadfulwater 1-2, Wolff 0-2, Tucker 1-1, K. Isham 2-7, Silverthorn 1-6, Berghammer 0-1). Total fouls - Lane 26, WWCC 18. Fouled out - Lane (Minthorn, Brown). Technical fouls - none. Rebounds - WWCC 53 (Hutcheson 10, Johnson 10), Lane 42 (Brown 10). Turnovers - Lane 9, WWCC 8. Assists - WWCC 16 (Tucker 5), Lane 15 (Brown 3, Smith 3).