KENNEWICK - It's going to be another all-Eastern Region party here late this afternoon at the Toyota Center in the women's NWAACC Championships basketball tournament finals.
But for the first time in three years, Walla Walla's Warriors are not invited.
Defending champion Yakima and tournament host Columbia Basin meet at 5:30 p.m. to decide this year's championship. The Hawks, the reigning Eastern Region champs, take a 28-2 record into the finale and the Yaks, who finished third in the division, are 23-7.
Walla Walla entered the tournament as the East's No. 2 seed. But the Warriors weren't ready for Yakima's defensive intensity and they couldn't overcome the Yaks timely 3-point shooting in a 59-47 semifinal loss Monday night.
"It was very remindful of last year's championship game," WWCC coach Bobbi Hazeltine said. "They jumped on us right away and you could just feel it. Our shots were not falling and we were having trouble going inside.
"Our kids played hard. But tonight Yakima was the better team."
Two years ago on this same court, Walla Walla defeated Yakima 75-72 for the second women's NWAACC title in the school's history. The same two teams reached the finals last year and the Yaks came away with a 53-40 victory.
After losing to the Yaks 81-76 in a non-league overtime game in Yakima very early this season, the Warriors defeated Yakima in both division counters. Walla Walla won 69-47 when the teams met Feb. 8 in the Dietrich Dome and 75-68 back in Yakima on Feb. 25.
Monday's semifinal match was the fourth of the year between the rivals. And it was mostly Yakima.
Kayla Gonzales, a 5-foot-7 freshman sharpshooter from East Valley High in Yakima, got the Yaks off to a fast start by draining two 3-pointers in the game's first 68 seconds.
The Warriors didn't draw blood until 15:57 remained in the first half when Leslie Stillar made 1-of-2 free throws to narrow the Yaks' early lead to 7-1. But two buckets by athletic Simone Jordan and a 17-footer by Jaimi Cox boosted Yakima's lead to 13-1 before the Warriors finally made their first field goal - a 3-pointer from the corner by Alex Pfefferle - 8 1/2 minutes into the game.
Yakima's frenetic, trapping defense - which forced 19 Warriors turnovers in the game - had WWCC's offensive attack in a defensive mode most of the night. The Warriors missed their first eight shots from the floor and 14 of their first 16 attempts.
Walla Walla was 5-for-24 (21 percent) from the field in the first half and 16-for-49 (33 percent) for the game. And they were 4-for-16 (25 percent) from beyond the 3-point line and connected on just 11-of-20 (55 percent) free throws.
"We didn't play well, we didn't shoot well," Hazeltine said. "We didn't play as well against them as we did the last two times. I thought we may have been a little up tight and we may have played a little scared."
Whatever the shortcoming, the Warriors never quit.
Trailing 20-7 after the Yaks' Hannah Lekson delivered a 3-pointer with eight minutes to play in the first half, the Warriors clawed to within 22-19.
Stillar started the surge by drawing a foul from behind as she attempted a 3-pointer. She made all three free throws to cut the deficit to 20-10.
Reserve post Stevie Humphries rebounded her own miss and scored to make it an eight-point game. Hailey Felgenhauer converted both ends of a one-and-one free throw opportunity to draw Walla Walla within 20-14. And after Jordan dropped in a pair of free throws for Yakima, Felgenhauer's short, baseline turnaround and Pefferle's second 3-ball of the half had the Warriors within three points, 22-19, with 1:27 to play in the half.
Samantha Zapien responded with a 3-pointer for Yakima and Stillar hit 1-of-2 free throws to close out the first half with the Yakimans on top 25-20.
If there was a sense of optimism in the Warriors' locker room at halftime, it dissipated quickly in the second half as Brittney Newcomb, Jordan and Gonzales drilled back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers that vaulted the Yaks to a 34-20 lead with 17:50 remaining in the game.
But once again the Warriors put together a gritty, energy-draining comeback.
Sophomore post Tai Jensen, who had been held scoreless in the first half, finally began to find some operating room in the paint. She scored on a baseline move to make it a 10-point game, 38-28, at the 14:34 mark, and her rebound basket made it 40-30 a minute later.
Two free throws by point guard Janae Klarich and two more by Jensen trimmed the Yaks' lead to 40-34 with 11:31 showing on the second-half clock.
But in the ensuing two minutes, Jensen drew her fourth foul and the Yaks rattled off four straight field goals for a 48-34 lead.
With 9:22 remaining, the determined but weary Warriors found the strength for one more run.
Jensen sandwiched two layins around a pair of free throws by Sienna Edmunson as WWCC closed the gap to 48-40 with 7:04 showing. And they got to within seven points, 50-43, on Stillar's 3-pointer at the 5:52 mark.
Back-to-back baskets by Zapien restored an 11-point Yakima lead. But Edmunson drove the baseball for two points and Jensen put back a rebound and the Warriors had it back to seven points, 54-47, with 1:47 remaining.
But the Warriors missed their final three shots, turned the ball over twice and the Yaks sealed the win by making 5-of-6 free throws.
Newcomb, who made all eight of her free throws, led the Yaks with 15 points. Jordan added 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Gonzales, who was 3-for-4 from 3-point distance, finished with 11 points.
Jensen scored all 16 of her game-high 16 points in the second half to pace the Warriors, and she also finished with a team-high eight rebounds. Stillar was the Warriors' only other double-figure scorer with 11 points.
Walla Walla, 22-7, plays for third place this afternoon at 2 against Chemeketa, 21-7, which lost to Columbia Basin 53-44 in Monday night's other semifinal game.
Getting emotionally ready for today's game won't be easy, Hazeltine admitted.
"We talked about that, about pride and character," the coach said. "But that's an upset locker room right now. They so much wanted to play for a championship and it's heartbreaking that they won't get to.
"The third-place game is always the toughest game in the tournament because nobody wants to be in it," she added. "I've been there before, and I hate it."
Yakima 59, Walla Walla 47
YAKIMA (59) - Newcomb 3-13 8-8 15, Brewster 0-1 0-0 0, Cox 3-8 0-2 6, Swetzof 1-6 0-0 2, Gonzales 4-6 0-0 11, Lekson 2-8 0-0 5, Ferguson 0-0 0-0 0, Jordan 4-12 3-4 12, Zapien 3-8 1-2 8. Totals 20-62 12-16 59.
WALLA WALLA (47) - Seitz 0-0 2-2 2, Klarich 2-6 0-2 4, Hawkins 0-1 0-0 0, Stillar 2-14 5-7 11, Pfefferle 2-5 0-0 6, Humphries 1-5 0-3 2, Felgenhauer 1-2 0-2 2, Edmunson 1-5 2-2 4, McDonald 0-0 0-0 0, Jensen 7-11 2-2 16. Totals 16-49 11-20 47.
Halftime - Yakima 25, WWCC 20. 3-point goals - Yakima 7-24 (Newcomb 1-7, Swetzof 0-5, Gonzales 3-4, Lekson 1-4, Jordan 1-3, Zapien 1-1), WWCC 4-16 (Klarich 0-1, Hawkins 0-1, Stillar 2-8, Pfefferle 2-5, Edmunson 0-1). Total fouls - Yakima 21, WWCC 15. Fouled out - WWCC (Jensen). Technical fouls - none. Rebounds - WWCC 41 (Jensen 8), Yakima 40 (Jordan 10). Turnovers - WWCC 19, Yakima 12. Assists - Yakima 8 (Gonzales 4), WWCC 8 (Stillar 3).