WALLA WALLA - Nancy Johnson, for one, believes Walla Walla's mid-season loss at Yakima that spoiled an otherwise perfect women's basketball season was a blessing in disguise.
"I really don't believe," Johnson said Tuesday night in the moments following the Warriors' 75-72 NWAACC championship-game victory over the Yaks in Kennewick's Toyota Center, "that we would be champions now if we hadn't lost that game at their place."
Her coach couldn't agree more.
"I don't view it as a blemish in any way," Bobbi Hazeltine said of her team's 54-48 loss to the Yaks in January. "In my mind, you never want to go into a tournament unbeaten. Obviously, you don't intentionally lose a game, but there's just so much more pressure if you haven't lost.
"Besides," Hazeltine added, "you learn so much more from a loss than you do from a win. And we learned a lot. When you win, you move on, but when you lose, you dwell on it.
"And we dwelled on that loss for a long time. I have to agree with Nancy 100 percent."
The Warriors avenged the loss at Yakima three weeks later when they beat the Yaks 66-59 in the Dietrich Dome. And then they won Tuesday's rubber match to earn the second women's championship in school history.
Johnson, a 5-foot-10 sophomore post, played an integral role in the championship-game victory, as she did throughout the tournament and Walla Walla's remarkable 28-1 season. Against the Yaks on Tuesday, she shared team-high scoring honors with 20 points, snagged five rebounds and helped out defensively on Yakima star Anna Marchbanks, who led all scorers with 32 points.
Johnson scored 72 points in four tournament games, picked off 43 rebounds and dished out seven assists. She enjoyed two double-doubles, including 26 points and 20 rebounds in a quarterfinal victory over Centralia, and she was named to the all-tournament first team.
She was also an NWAACC all-Eastern Division first-team selection after averaging 14.7 points and 7.5 rebounds during the regular season.
But the Idaho Falls, Idaho, product wasn't entirely satisfied with her performance in Tuesday's championship game.
"I was being selfish, actually," Johnson said of her defensive play against Marchbanks, a talented 5-11 sophomore out of Salem, Ore., who averaged 19.3 points per game during the regular season. "I was trying not to get into foul trouble. I wanted to stay in the game and get rebounds and help the team, and I let her get away with some easy baskets.
"I finally decided it was time to win the game or foul out trying. And that's when she stopped scoring."
Hazeltine thought her center was a little too critical of herself.
"We did a better job defensively on (Marchbanks) during the season," Hazeltine said. "Kayla Hutcheson handled her pretty well, believe it or not, but Kayla has a real bad foot and could hardly go. But she wanted to play, and our kids off the bench are just too small.
"But at a certain point, we had to make an adjustment and went with Nancy. And right away she picked up her third foul, and we needed her in there offensively. But Nancy takes a lot of pride in her defense, and she did what she could."
And in the game's closing seconds, with the Yaks trailing by three points and Marchbanks looking for room to fire up a 3, it was Johnson who pressured the Yakima star into an off-balance fling from deep in the corner that never drew iron.
Johnson is sure to play at the four-year level next year, and her strong play in the tournament has enhanced her recruitability, Hazeltine said.
"This tournament solidified what kind of a player she is," the coach said. "She got a ton of looks and she can go to a lot of places. She will go somewhere for sure, and she has a lot of (NCAA) Division I schools looking at her now."
Kati Isham, the Warriors' other Division I standout, signed with Boise State University before the season began. But that didn't stop her from winning a second straight Eastern Division most valuable player award as well as the tournament's MVP award.
"I can't take the credit for all of that," said Isham, who scored 73 points in four tournament games, including 20 in the championship game, after averaging 22 points per game during the regular season. "That's a blessing from God. All the credit goes to my teammates and to God."
Isham, who transferred to WWCC last year from the Air Force Academy, and her little sister Shelbi grew up in Howe, Idaho, and arrived on the Walla Walla campus together. Following Tuesday's championship game, the sisters climbed into the stands to hug dozens of family members and friends from the small southern Idaho community who made the trip to the Tri-Cities to attend the game.
"Kati and Shelbi have become close to everybody because they are such good kids," Hazeltine said. "I think faculty and staff and all of the parents feel like everyone of these kids is theirs, not just their own."
Kati, a 5-8 guard, figures to have a little more room to maneuver at Boise State than she has in a Warriors uniform, where she has been in the cross hairs of every opposing defense.
"They don't want her to handle the ball or guard the other team's best person every night," Hazeltine said. "She's not going to get all the double teams. She'll just be asked to come off of screens and shoot."
Yakima's defense was particularly aggressive against Isham, but she refused to let it effect her game.
"You can't get caught up in that," she said. "There's nothing you can do about it, so you just play through it.
"I can't ever blame the referees. Just play."
Still, Hazeltine marvels at her star guard's composure.
"So many kids would either get mad and fight back or hang their heads," Hazeltine said. "But Kati just has that game face no matter what is happening. She understands that if we want to win, she has to keep her head in the game."
The Isham sisters and Johnson aren't the only sophomores the coach will have to replace before next season. Starting guard Layne Tucker, starting power forward Hutcheson, reserve post Jaimie Berghammer and backup guard/forward Morgon VanderEsch also played their final games in a Warrior uniform Tuesday in the Toyota Center.
"We figured it out, and we're losing over 60 points and about 25 rebounds a game," Hazeltine said. "It's not that we don't have some good players returning, but look who they were playing behind?"
Freshmen guards Shiann Dreadfulwater and Morgan Wolff and freshman forward Cierra Silverthorn all made key contributions during the course of the season and in the tournament. Freshmen Kassi Kerbs and Alexis Pickering saw fewer minutes during the season and didn't see action at all this past week.
"This is going to be the most challenging spring for recruiting that I have ever had," said Hazeltine as she begins to make preparations for her 12th season at WWCC.
"We have a commitment from one post player, and another is coming in for a visit. And I'm going to have to bring in some scorers.
"But that's all right," she said. "It's all part of the job."