WALLA WALLA - Coach Bobbi Hazeltine's fears that her Walla Walla team couldn't - or wouldn't - regroup emotionally in time for Tuesday's third-place game at the NWAACC Championships women's basketball tournament in Kennewick proved to be unfounded.
Fueled by sophomore Alex Pfefferle's career game, the inspired Warriors bolted to a 44-23 halftime lead and then survived Chemeketa's gritty second-half comeback for a 71-69 victory to finish off a successful 23-7 season.
But in the moments following her team's 57-49 semifinal loss to Yakima Monday night at the Toyota Center, Hazeltine expressed how difficult it was to play for third place because of the mental letdown. Somehow she had to find the words to motivate her players, but first she had to find her own inspiration.
"We were in the same game several years ago," Hazeltine said. "I learned then that you have to get over it and go play for third place instead of moping around."
Hazeltine was referring to the 2008 tournament.
After beating Everett and Centralia in the first two rounds of the tournament, the Warriors lost to Columbia Basin 72-63 in the semifinals. The next day they were beaten by Lane 63-58 and had to settle for sixth place.
"I think some of us came out and pouted a little bit before that game," Hazeltine recalled.
So what was the difference Tuesday?
"We didn't talk Xs and Os at all," Hazeltine said of her pregame preparation. "I tried to give them a little inspirational speech about not having any regrets. And the girls seemed to buy into it because they came out and played really hard.
"My players made it a lot easier on me," Hazeltine said. "Especially those six sophomores who knew it was their last game and played with so much emotion. There were no signs of being down."
Pfefferle, of course, was at the heart of it. The 5-foot-10 guard from Twin Falls, Idaho, dropped in six 3-pointers and scored 27 points to lead her team to victory.
"She was on fire," Hazeltine said of Pfefferle. "She can shoot like that every night if people leave her open. Our league knows about her, but Chemeketa didn't. And they didn't guard her for awhile."
And Pfefferle did it two days after aggravating a surgically repaired knee in the Warriors' 72-68 quarterfinal victory over Skagit Valley. Pfefferle, who originally suffered the knee injury on the same floor against the same team in last year's tournament, got the OK to play in Monday's semifinals against Yakima, but she never looked comfortable.
"It was kind of stiff and kind of sore," she said. "I knew that mentally I would have to get past it, and (against Chemeketa) I forgot all about it."
Pfefferle and five of her teammates played their final game in a WWCC uniform Tuesday night. The others are starting post Tai Jensen, point guard Janae Klarich, shooting guard Leslie Stillar, all-purpose guard Sienna Edmunson and backup post Stevie Humphries.
"Every group is different," Hazeltine said. "This is a unique group of sophomores because of a unique personality. They were really fun, and they liked to have a good time. They played their best when they were loose and not too serious."
But Hazeltine won't exactly be starting from scratch when next season rolls around.
Hailey Felgenhauer, a 5-11 freshman, started at forward all season and was the Warriors' third-leading scorer at 11.3 points per game and also averaged 4 1/2 rebounds a game. Michelle Seitz and Brooke Hawkins were a pair of freshman guards who saw important minutes. And Gabby Anderson, a 6-2 freshman post from Wa-Hi, came off the bench Tuesday and played perhaps her best game of the season.
"She was huge for us," Hazeltine said of Anderson, who hit one basket, made both of her free throws and snagged four rebounds in her 8:20 on the floor. "That's going to give her a ton of confidence going into next year and we are so excited for her.
"She's going to have to live in the weight room and get stronger," Hazeltine added. "But she's one of our most dedicated players. And she's been patient playing behind two sophomore posts. She knows that next year is going to be her time."
Another ace in the hole for Hazeltine is Caitlin Duncan of DeSales, who started as a freshman on a WWCC team that reached the NWAACC finals but missed all of this season after suffering a knee injury last summer.
"She's just now starting to run," Hazeltine said of Duncan. "We're hoping she gets released in early April so she can start spring ball. Then she can rehab all spring and summer and be ready to go in September.
"With Caitlin and Hailey (Felgenhauer), we feel like we have two starters coming back next season."
Hazeltine already has a couple of commitments from high school seniors and hopes to have a few more in the next month or so. Her goal is to add seven or eight recruits to the fold.
As for this year's sophomores, Hazeltine expects all six to play basketball at the four-year level next season.
"I have no idea where any of them will go," Hazeltine said. "Before we went to the tournament, we had a lot of kids getting a lot of looks, mostly from NAIA and NCAA Division III schools. And just about every one of them had at least one good game at the tournament, so now a bunch of other schools are looking.
"I'm just happy because just about everyone is getting a look and most of them will have options."
Pfefferle, for one, has every intention of playing at the next level. But at the same time, she's not looking forward to leaving Walla Walla.
"I definitely want to go on," she said. "You only get four years, and I don't want to have any regrets.
"But I'd stay a Warrior forever if I could."