KENNEWICK - In the uproarious moments following Leslie Stillar's game-winning 3-point shot that beat Highline 55-52 here Sunday night in the NWAACC Championships quarterfinals, Walla Walla freshman Stillar spilled the beans about her team's mission.
"We want to bring that big gold ball back home for our two sophomores," the Warriors' 5-foot-6 shooting guard said.
That "big gold ball" is the tournament's championship trophy that the Warriors captured here last year in the Toyota Center with a 75-72 victory over Yakima. Guards Shiann Dreadfulwater and Morgan Wolff are the only holdovers from that team.
Stillar made sure that her team stayed on task in Monday night's semifinal round as she scored 18 points - 17 of them in the second half - as Walla Walla outlasted Columbia Basin 52-48 to reach the title game for a second straight year.
"Unbelievable," WWCC coach Bobbi Hazeltine said, just a hint of tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "We had to struggle just to get into this tournament, and now we're playing for the championship.
Stillar's play was almost unbelievable as she drained a pair of 3-point baskets and scored 10 consecutive Warrior points midway in the second half as the Walla Wallans rallied from a 28-26 deficit to a 36-32 lead that WWCC refused to relinquish the rest of the way.
"She was like a girl possessed," Hazeltine said of her prize recruit from Lakeside High School in Nine Mile Falls, Wash. "I have never seen a kid take over the way she did tonight."
Partly out of necessity, Hazeltine might have added.
The Warriors were playing without one of their other freshman standouts, Alex Pfefferle, who suffered what was diagnosed Tuesday morning as a torn ACL in her left knee in the early moments of Sunday's quarterfinal. The Warriors' leading scorer on the season was on crutches as she watched Monday's game from the WWCC bench.
"Alex called me this morning about five minutes before I was going to meet with the team," Hazeltine said. "She told me it was her ACL, that it was surgery, that it was going to be nine months (of rehabilitation).
"I told the team that it was her ACL and she couldn't play, but I couldn't say another word. I was too emotional. I broke down."
Pefferle asked her coach if she could address the team before Monday's game. Hazeltine admitted that she wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do, or if it might backfire. But she relented, and it was the right thing.
"It was real emotional," Hazeltine said. "And it really fired the kids up."
Post Tai Jensen put back a rebound and forward Caitlin Duncan dropped home a 3-pointer as WWCC zipped to a 5-0 lead in the game's first 90 seconds. But the Hawks, who had defeated Walla Walla twice in three regular-season meetings, recovered for a 14-11 lead at the 10:48 mark as guard Andrea Bland tallied seven points during a 9-1 CBC run.
Walla Walla's deep bench surfaced during the final nine minutes of the first half as wing Sienna Edmunson and post Stevie Humphries each scored a pair of baskets. Wolff also got into the act with a drive to the hoop for her only two points of the game and the Warriors took a 21-20 lead into the intermission.
The Hawks assumed a 24-21 lead on baskets by center Jorie Freeman and guard Trishi Williams to begin the second half. Jensen hit back-to-back baskets and Duncan made 1-of-2 free throws for a 26-24 Walla Walla lead with 16:59 remaining, But a baseline jumper by Bland and a short bank shot by Freeman put the Hawks up 28-26.
And then Stillar went to work. She hit two free throws, two 3s and a 2-point field goal in a span of less than five minutes as Walla Walla moved ahead 36-32.
Tiffany Idler, CBS's freshman recruit out of Columbia-Burbank, hoisted up a short hook to cut the Warriors' lead to 36-34. But reserve post Baylie Smith connected from close range, Stillar knocked down a mid-range jumper, Humphries converted an offensive rebound into two points and Edmunson knocked down a 3 as Walla Walla rocketed to a 45-34 lead with 4:58 remaining.
The Warriors made just enough free throws - 7-of-11 - the rest of the way to hang on for the victory. Stillar sank 5-of-6 from the line in the final 47 seconds, including a pair with 10.1 seconds on the clock that made it a two-possession game.
Edmunson finished with seven points. Jensen, Humphries and Duncan delivered six points each. And Dreadfulwater chipped in with five. Duncan also hauled down a game-high nine rebounds as Walla Walla won the battle of the boards 38-37.
Bland scored 15 points and Idler 10 for the Hawks. Williams, the Eastern Division's player of the year, came up with nine points against Dreadfulwater's heavy lifting on the defensive end.
"I thought Shiann did an unbelievable job on Trishi," Hazeltine said. "And I thought our post players were very good against their post players. Our defense was just so good, so good."
And now it's on to a championship game rematch here late this afternoon against Yakima, which overpowered Spokane 60-41 in Monday's other all-Eastern Division semifinal. The opening tip is slated for 4:30 p.m.
Yakima, which finished second in the East behind Columbia Basin, brings a 22-7 record into the game. The fourth-seeded Warriors are now 22-6, but they lost both of their games against the Yaks during the regular season.
"Yakima creates matchup problems for us at every single position," Hazeltine said. "I'm sure we are going to be the underdogs again, but that's nothing new. We have been all season."
And the Warriors won't have an emotional edge going up against a team that is mourning the death of a teammate. Yaks freshman Hannah Cordova was killed in an auto accident last week near her hometown of Wapato.
"I just can't imagine what Cody is going through right now," Hazeltine said of Yakima coach Cody Butler. "What Yakima is going through right now is way bigger than what we've experienced. An ACL is one thing, the death of a player is something altogether different.
"It's beginning to look like Yakima is a team of destiny," Hazeltine added. "And now we are the team that is trying to stop them."
WALLA WALLA (52) - Dreadfulwater 2-6 1-1 5, Klarich 0-2 0-0 0, Wolff 1-5 0-0 2, Stillar 4-11 8-10 18, Duncan 1-9 3-6 6, Humphries 3-6 0-0 6, Edmunson 3-5 0-1 7, Smith 1-2 0-0 2, Jensen 3-7 0-0 6. Totals 18-53 12-18 52.
COLUMBIA BASIN (48) - Williams 3-8 2-2 9, Malito 1-2 0-0 3, Strom 0-0 0-0 0, Jiminez 0-2 0-0 0, Stewart 0-0 0-0 0, Young 0-3 0-0 0, Freeman 4-10 0-1 8, Bland 6-15 2-2 15, Walker 1-5 1-2 3, Idler 5-9 0-0 10. Totals 20-54 5-7 48.
Halftime - WWCC 21, CBC 20. 3-point goals - WWCC 4-14 (Dreadfulwater 0-1, Wolff 0-3, Stillar 2-6, Duncan 1-2, Edmunson 1-2), CBC 3-15 (Williams 1-2, Malito 1-2, Jiminez 0-2, Young 0-3, Bland 1-6). Total fouls - CBC 18, WWCC 15. Fouled out - none. Technical fouls - none. Rebounds - WWCC 38 (Duncan 9), CBC 37 (Freeman 7). Turnovers - WWCC 18, CBC 18. Assists - WWCC 10 (Dreadfulwater 3), CBC 7 (Williams 3).