No. 4 seed Seattle U secured a Big Dance berth Saturday with a 57-54 victory over No. 2 Cal State Bakersfield at Orleans Arena to capture its first Western Athletic Conference tournament title.
LAS VEGAS — Forty years after Seattle University began playing women’s basketball, the Redhawks are heading to their first NCAA tournament.
No. 4 seed Seattle U secured an automatic berth Saturday to the Big Dance with a 57-54 victory over No. 2 Cal State Bakersfield at Orleans Arena to capture its first Western Athletic Conference tournament title.
Perhaps fittingly, sophomore guard Kamira Sanders, the tournament’s MVP, sank a pair of free throws with 21.9 seconds remaining to secure the win.
“They were definitely big,” said Sanders, who finished with a game-high 20 points and five rebounds. “Just closing it and getting a three-point lead made (it) a little more comforting.”
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On the ensuing possession, CSUB guard Jazmine Johnson missed a short jumper and Jacinta Beckley collected the rebound with 4.6 seconds left.
The Redhawks mishandled the next play, which resulted in a turnover and gave the Roadrunners one last chance to tie. The game ended with a harmless three-point attempt from the Roadrunners that never made it to the rim.
Seattle U players exploded from the bench and danced in delight at midcourt truly engulfed in women’s basketball March Madness for the first time in school history.
“I’m actually numb, to be real honest,” second-year coach Suzy Barcomb said during a postgame celebration. “I’ve had super-high expectations, and I had to re-evaluate if I had too high (of) expectations for them.
“But they began living up to them, so I had to keep on pushing. … And they responded. For the last 5-6 games we were so dialed in to become champions.”
The Redhawks (18-14) head into the NCAA tournament with a five-game winning streak, including three straight in the WAC tournament.
Seattle U made three previous trips to the WAC tournament title game, losing in 2013, ’14 and ’17.
“Last year we lost big (63-48) and my freshman year (in 2014) we were in the championship here against Idaho and … I was like it’s our time,” said senior guard Alexis Montgomery, who wore a big smile while carrying the WAC tournament trophy during postgame celebrations. “All of it runs through your mind, but every moment is worth it when you win a championship.”
To win their first tournament title, the Redhawks had to overcome a difficult shooting performance (37.8 percent) and manufacture points at the free-throw line, where they connected on 18 of 19 shots.
Seattle U converted just 6 of 21 shots (28.6 percent) in the first half and went into the break tied 25-25.
Neither team led by more than eight points, and the Redhawks had to sweat out the final few minutes after Sanders put them ahead 55-47 with 3:33 remaining.
SU’s offense went cold and didn’t score again until the final seconds. During the drought, Cal State Bakersfield went on a 7-0 run to pull within a point, 55-54.
“When they were going on their run it was value (the ball) and keep composure,” Sanders said. “They made the run, but we still had the lead. As long as we kept our focus and stayed true to what we were doing, we were going to be OK.”
Montgomery, who was voted to the WAC all-tournament team, finished with 15 points, six rebounds and five assists, while junior guard Madeline Dopplick had 11 points, including two clutch three-pointers in the fourth quarter.
Jazmyne Bartee scored 15 points and Johnson had 12 for Cal State Bakersfield (18-13), which is likely headed to the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
Seattle U will host a party for Redhawks fans at O’Brien Center to watch the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Selection Show that starts at 4 p.m. Monday on ESPN.
“It’s exciting for the program,” athletic director Shaney Fink said. “It’s been six years that we’ve been eligible (for NCAA postseason events), and to be in the (WAC tournament) finals last year and come out and win this year, it’s just really exciting. It’s great energy. It’s really contagious.”
The women’s basketball team is the fourth Seattle U team to make the NCAA tournament in the past two years, joining women’s soccer (2016), men’s golf (2017) and men’s soccer (2017).
“We’ve got an exciting week ahead,” Fink said. “We’ll find out where we go with the Selection Show. Who knows where we’ll end up? We got our men’s basketball team in (the College Basketball Invitational). It’s just going to be a lot of excitement around Seattle U.
“Every win, every success builds on it. … And you can feel that everywhere on campus.”