It’s been the team’s running joke all season, but this time it’s true.
Northwest Nazarene women’s basketball coach Steve Steele did in fact have a “lot” more hair the last time the program won an NCAA Tournament game. He had a full set of hair coaching high school girls basketball in Southern California circa 2003.
The second-seeded Nighthawks ended the 16-year drought with an 85-75 win over Humboldt State on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Division II West Regional Tournament at Rimac Arena in San Diego, California.
Northwest Nazarene will play No. 3 seed and Great Northwest Athletic Conference foe Alaska Anchorage at 6 p.m. today in the regional semifinals.
“We’ve actually been asked that question a couple times and we’re not really thinking about that (ending the drought),” Steele said. “That’s stuff that’s in the past and we’re honestly, I know it sounds really cliche, but we’re trying to just look forward and not think too much about it. I’m sure when the season’s over, we’ll look back and reflect on what that means and how special it is, but we’re just trying to play the best basketball we can right now.”
Avery Albrecht led four different Northwest Nazarene players in double figures with a team-high 20 points. The 5-foot-9 junior guard also recorded three rebounds, two steals and a couple of blocks.
“I never block people so that was something new, oh my gosh,” Albrecht said, laughing. “I don’t know where those came from.”
Senior twin posts and Nampa High alums Danielle and Raquel Jardine both added 10 points apiece, while senior guard Ellie Logan also scored 10.
But it wasn’t easy. Even if the final score indicated otherwise.
Northwest Nazarene trailed for about 14 consecutive minutes during a stretch from the second to the third quarter.
Following a 22-15 lead after one, Humboldt State scored the first 10 points of the second quarter to take its first lead since the 8:45 mark of the opening quarter. A layup by Isamar Conde capped a 14-2 Lumberjacks run to give them a 25-22 advantage with 7:31 remaining in the first half.
Humboldt State ended up outscoring NNU 23-12 in the quarter and took a 38-34 lead into the locker room.
“Our strength on our team is when we play at a high tempo and we create that tempo with our press and our fast offense. So when we kind of of give in to the pace that they want to set, is usually when we start losing our lead,” Albrecht said. “It’s hard because we know it’s one-game elimination, so it’s easy to start panicking when a lead starts slipping. It’s easy to see the worst-case scenario.”
But the underdogs didn’t stop there.
The Nighthawks’ deficit grew to six at 40-34 after Alexia Thrower scored the first bucket 31 seconds into the second half. Humboldt State led for about another five minutes before Rocky Mountain graduate Maya Rodgers gave NNU its first lead of game since there was 9:19 left in the first half.
It only lasted for 19 seconds after Conde’s three-point play handed the Lumberjacks the lead right back at 47-46 with 4:30 to go in the third. But that was their last lead of the game. A jumper by Rodgers 25 seconds later put Northwest Nazarene up for good at 48-47.
However, NNU wasn’t out of the woods yet. The Nighthawks only led by two at 55-53 at the end of third. A 3-pointer by Jovanah Arrington cut that to one at 59-58 with 8:31 remaining.
Northwest Nazarene, though, put the game on ice by going on a 13-2 run over the next five minutes. Logan’s jumper gave the Nighthawks their biggest lead of the game at 72-60 with 3:31 to play.
The Lumberjacks only got as close as six the rest of the way. It was all part of an NNU 30-point fourth quarter.
NNU survived by controlling the boards. It outrebounded Humboldt State 44-25.
Twenty of those were offensive rebounds, which led to 19 second-chance points. Humboldt State only had six points for comparison.
Danielle Jardine had 11 boards by herself, eight of those were offensive, for a double-double.
“We’ve been focusing on getting assisted baskets and controlling the boards and we did that tonight,” Danielle Jardine said. “A lot of us missed a lot of layups, but eventually one of our teammates went in and grabbed a rebound and I think that really set the tone of our game.”
Still, it was Albrecht who led the charge, especially in the first six minutes of play. The La Grande, Oregon, native drilled three 3-pointers during that span. The last of which capped a 15-2 run that put the Nighthawks up 15-5 with 3:31 left in the first quarter.
Albrecht then went quiet in the second with no points, but emerged again when her jumper cut a minute and a half into the third cut Humboldt State’s lead down to 40-38. She had another 11 points during the final twenty minutes of play.
She finished 6 of 8 (75 percent) from the field, including 3 of 3 from behind the arc, and 5 of 6 (80 percent) from the free-throw line.
“It felt really great,” Albrecht said. “When I see my first shot go in, I start to loosen up and relax and remember just to have fun out there. I was ready to let it fly when I got the ball.”
The Nighthawks will now prepare for a fourth encounter with GNAC rival, Alaska Anchorage. It will also be the second meeting in a week after Northwest Nazarene downed the Seawolves 70-64 for their first GNAC Tournament title in program history on March 9.
Alaska Anchorage’s only two losses have come to NNU. The Nighthawks also topped the Seawolves (29-2) 84-68 at home on Dec. 1. Alaska Anchorage, though, upended Northwest Nazarene 64-55 in Anchorage for the regular season championship on Feb. 28.
The Seawolves ended the Nighthawks’ season last year with a 65-63 win in the first round of the NCAA Division II West Regional Tournament.
“It’s never an easy game against Anchorage, but it’s always fun,” Steele said. “Obviously, they’re an amazing team, their history speaks for itself. Not just their past history, but we’re the only team to beat them this year.
“Think about it from their side, if they lose to us, they will finish the year 29-3 and they will have only lost to us. So whoever gets knocked out here is unfortunate in a huge way just by the nature of the way the tournament is set up. If we were in Division I, they’d be a No. 1 seed in some place and region, and we probably would be too. There are honestly three No. 1 seeds in this region and only one is coming out, but that doesn’t change the game itself.”