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George Fox outlasts Willamette for Northwest Conference title Saturday, faces tough draw in quest for a national championship

GARY ALLEN - Kylin Collman scoops a shot during George Fox's 60-50 win over Willamette in the Northwest Conference Tournament championship game Saturday at Miller Gymnasium. The Bruins will face St. Benedict Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Waverly, Iowa.

When the going has gotten tough this season, the George Fox women's basketball team has gotten its defense going in response.

So it was fitting that the Bruins relied on their defense to turn away Willamette after the Bearcats had rallied their way back into the Northwest Conference tournament championship game Saturday night at Miller Gymnasium.

Thanks to a stellar second quarter, George Fox led by 16 points at halftime, but saw their advantage shrink to just two points at 52-50 with less than three minutes to play.

Senior Kaitlin Jamieson answered back with a bucket to make it 54-50, but it was the back-to-back steals by Emily Spencer and Jamieson that truly put the game away, as the Bruins went on to hit six of eight free throws the rest of the way to secure a 60-50 victory.GARY ALLEN - The George Fox women's basketball team celebrates it's 60-50 win over Willamette in the Northwest Conference Tournament championship game Saturday at Miller Gymnasium. The Bruins have won

"They started getting some of the momentum, definitely, once they saw the ball go through the basket," Meek said of Willamette. "Kind of like they have all year, when things were getting tight, our kids found new energy and played solid."

George Fox advanced to the NWC title game by dispatching Lewis & Clark 80-41 in the semifinals Feb. 22.

The Bruins also played suffocating defense in the opening two quarters of that game, limiting the Pioneers (14-12) to 28.5 percent shooting from the field to stake a 43-17 lead at the break.

Spencer paced GFU with 16 points and Haylee Hutzler added 11, as the Bruins turned the ball over just six times for the entire game.

"I felt really good about the energy we came out with and really sustained that the entire game," Meek said. "Lewis & Clark had a great year and it was good to have that game and move on."GARY ALLEN - The Bruins have won 13 straight games. GFU coach Michael Meek reacts to a call during George Fox's 60-50 win over Willamette in the Northwest Conference Tournament championship game Saturday at Miller Gymnasium.

Willamette kept things tight in the first quarter Saturday night, as George Fox led 15-13 after 10 minutes, but the Bruins clamped down with their full-court press in the second, forcing six turnovers.

Bearcat Celine Gregoire scored 30 seconds into the period to make it 17-15, but the Bruins held the visitors scoreless the rest of the quarter to pull away for a 31-15 halftime lead. Willamette also went 0-for-11 from deep in the first half.

"I felt like that's a really potent offensive team," Meek said. "Last year they were one of the top three-point shooting teams in the nation and are very good again. Defensively we really did a great job contesting those shots and making them harder."

The Bearcats, however, did warm up in the second half, going three-for-six on triples in the third quarter to trim the deficit to 11. They added three more in the fourth quarter, including two in the first 2:10 of the quarter to make it a 47-43 contest.

Jamieson came up big for the Bruins in response, scoring seven of her game-high 15 points in the fourth quarter to help hold off Willamette's charge.

"I think she's really come on as the season's gone on and I thought she had a great weekend," Meek said of his senior post. "I thought it was probably her strongest overall weekend as far as playing with great energy and making some really athletic plays."GARY ALLEN - Sophomore Kylin Collman helps cut down the net in celebration of George Fox's win over Willamette in the Northwest Conference Tournament championship game Saturday at Miller Gymnasium.

With the win, George Fox earned its fifth consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament, and 10th in the past 11 years, but received a surprisingly difficult draw from the selection committee.

In years past, geographic considerations and travel restrictions have often meant the NWC champion has hosted the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, but done so in a pod that has included one or two other conference rivals, essentially making for a repeat of the league tournament.

The Bruins (23-3) entered the conference tournament ranked No. 4 in the West Regional standings and were therefore not likely to host a pod, but were placed in what may be the toughest four-team grouping in the entire bracket hosted by No. 2 Wartburg (27-0) in Waverly, Iowa.

In the opening round George Fox, which was ranked No. 14 according to d3hoops.com, will face College of St. Benedict, which was ranked No. 3 in the West region before falling in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament semifinals to Gustavus Adolphus (No. 8 West region). Although the top-25 rankings are not used by the selection committee, the Blazers (22-4) were ranked No. 21 by d3hoops. The two teams will square off at 3:30 p.m. Friday.

"I don't think there's any doubt that it's an incredibly strong pool," Meek said. "We're going to have to play great teams along the way and we're going to see them early this year."

In contrast, Whitman lost three of its last four games (once to GFU and twice to Willamette) and had fallen to No. 5 in the West region rankings, but was sent to a less daunting pod hosted by Texas-Dallas, which was unranked by d3hoops.com but the No. 1 team in the South region. The Blues (22-4) will face East Texas Baptist (22-6).

After the growth he's seen from his team, in particular its rebounding and overall play on the road, Meek is confident his team, which has now won 13 straight, is prepared for the challenge.

"Probably of any group we've had here for the last eight years, I felt like this one had so many players in new positions and new roles and it would take some time," Meek said. "They have just worked so hard and had such great attitudes. You can really see the improvement and I feel really good about where we're at."

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