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  • Mary Vickery, Staff Writer

Women’s hoops makes nationals despite conference cataclysm

Updated: Mar 1

The Willamette student section cheers on the 'Cats. Photo by Keenan Yoshizawa.

On Friday, Feb. 23, women's basketball faced the University of Puget Sound at home in the NWC tournament semifinals after placing first in the conference. Before the game, an audience clad in white shirts rolled with excitement. An estimated 1,250 students and staff alike shifted in their seats. By the end of the fourth quarter, the excitement had died alongside the Bearcats’ hopes of a first-ever conference tournament victory, but on Monday morning the ‘Cats learned of their chance at redemption. They’ve earned a bid to the national tournament. 

Ava Kitchin ('24) collects herself before a free throw. Photo by Keenan Yoshizawa.

The Bearcats had faced the Loggers twice before the semifinal, winning both games. Head Coach Peg Swadener believes the Loggers' defense made the difference in their final meeting. She commented, “The last couple of games we’ve played them, they’ve pressed us so we were able to get a majority of our offense against them to pass on the press. They didn’t press us this game; they turned us into a half-court team and we struggled with that. They took that press off and that’s an honor because it shows we were beating them with what their number one [plan] was.”

Head Coach Peg Swadener and home supporters lock in. Photo by Keenan Yoshizawa.

Post-game, Bearcats entered the lobby of Sparks with puffy eyes, still in uniform. Standout post Ava Kitchin (‘24) remarked, “Our team has worked so hard this entire season. … All of us are super proud of what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished.” 

Swadener noted her thanks to the Willamette community and “Bearcat Nation.” However passionate, student support proved futile. The Loggers defeated the ‘Cats 50-70.

The crowd loses it over a foul. Photo by Keenan Yoshizawa.

The national tournament bracket was released the next Monday morning with the rooster's crow. Despite their loss in the semifinals, the Bearcats will be traveling to the University of Wisconsin Whitewater to face Decatur, Illinois’ Millikin University in the NCAA Nationals on Friday, March 1. Millikin also lost in their conference semifinals this year.

According to guard Kaitlin Imai (‘26), the upcoming battle against Big Blue wasn’t guaranteed. Imai said, “We had been ranked in regional polls towards the end of the season but I thought that losing in the semifinals of the tournament was going to affect our chances.” Imai looks forward to redemption, but more heavily emphasized, “I think that this is our second chance to finish out the season on a better note and really buy into who we are as a team. I think that getting this bid really shows us that our work throughout the season has paid off ... people are recognizing what we can do as a team, and that feels good.” 

The home support looks on early in the game. Photo by Keenan Yoshizawa.

The bout is set to take place this Friday, March 1 at 3:15 p.m. PST. The game will be available to stream. According to Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Rob Passage, the matchup will also likely be playing in Sparks’ Prothero classroom. 

Edit: ASWU, SAAC and CREC are hosting a round of 64 watch party from 3-5 p.m. on gameday at the Kaneko Auditorium. According to ASWU President Mira Karthik, snacks will be provided and everyone is welcome.

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