Warriors, Cardinals duke it out in NWAACC quarters

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KENNEWICK — They should have taken out the floor, repositioned the boards and strapped on ice skates.

Because the hand-to-hand combat Walla Walla and Skagit Valley engaged in here late Sunday afternoon would have put smiles on the faces of the Tri-City Americans, who play their Western Hockey League home games here in the Toyota Center.

It was basketbbrawl at its best — or its worst, depending on your opinion — in the quarterfinals of the women’s NWAACC Championships. And in the end, the Warriors got the worst of it as the Cardinals bruised and battered their way into the semifinals with a 56-51 victory.

Players spent more time picking themselves up off the court than they did running it.

Of the seemingly hundreds of fouls that were committed in the game, referees chose to call 30 of them: Sixteen against the Warriors and 14 on the Cardinals. And Skagit Valley was the better free-throw shooting team, sinking 12-of-16 compared to WWCC’s 9-for-16 effort.

Of course, one of the facts of life in a 16-team tournament is that there are schedules to be kept. And there’s little room for a time-consuming free-throw shooting contest.

“For whatever reason, they decided to let us play,” Warriors coach Bobbi Hazeltine said of the physical showdown. “Other than that, I’m not going there. That’s all I have to say.”

Skagit Valley was clearly the more physically imposing team, with a pair of six-footers plus a 5-11 player in its starting lineup. Walla Walla countered with 5-11 post Hailey Felgenhauer and 5-9 forward Caitlin Duncan on its front line.

But after an uninspired start when the Cardinals dominated their offensive glass, the Warriors proved to be the better rebounding team. Walla Walla held a 53-37 advantage when it was all said and done.

“We weren’t blocking out,” Hazeltine said of her team’s early shortcomings. A quick timeout was all that was required to solve that problem.

Michelle Seitz, the Warriors’ 5-6 sophomore shooting guard, showed the way. She dared to soar among the Skagit Valley trees and came away with 10 rebounds to match those claimed by the Cardinals’ star player, 5-11 sophomore Laken McClelland.

But it was in doing so that Seitz put herself at risk, and it might have cost the Warriors the game.

Seitz was bludgeoned twice in the game. The first time she cracked her head on the floor and had to sit out for several minutes in the first half, the second time she twisted or sprained her ankle and was taken out of the game for good with two-and-a-half minutes to play and the Warriors trailing by three points, 48-45.

“She’s our go-to girl late in games like this,” Hazeltine said. “And we didn’t have her.”

Hazeltine resisted the temptation to put her scoring and rebounding leader back into the game after Seitz had her ankle retaped.

“There comes a time when you have to forget about winning and think about somebody’s health,” the coach said. “She’s a person, not just a basketball player, and she still has a career ahead of her. It just wasn’t worth it.”

For schools from opposite corners of the state, Walla Walla and Skagit Valley are getting to know each other quite well. Sunday’s meeting was the fifth tournament battle between the two teams in the last seven years, and each game has been in the championship quarterfinals.

And there had to be a measure of satisfaction for the Cardinals, who lost to the Warriors in three of the previous four meetings, including last year’s 72-68 overtime affair.

Now the Warriors face the prospect of failing to place in the tournament for the first time in 13 years. Hazeltine took WWCC to the NWAACC championship in 2001, her second season as head coach, and that began a string of 13 consecutive appearances. The Warriors have never finished lower than seventh place.

Walla Walla won its second championship under Hazeltine in 2010 and has placed second twice, third twice, fourth twice, fifth once and sixth twice. But unless the Warriors can survive Clark this afternoon at 4 in a loser-out game, that string will come to an end.

“I hate playing in this game,” Hazeltine said of the task of motivating her team for today’s game.

Worst of all, she may have to play it without Seitz.

“I would imagine,” Hazeltine said, “that she won’t be able to play.

“But I’ve challenged our freshmen to play hard for our sophomores. What I want is two more games for my sophomores. I love my sophomores and I don’t want (Monday) to be the last game that I coach them.”

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