The West Coast Conference Championship Game - what are Portland even doing here? The Pilots weren’t event meant to be at the tournament. Not anymore.
On paper, they should have gone home days ago. They had been picked to finish last in the WCC. They weren’t meant to get a first-round bye, let alone two days off. They weren’t meant to get to the semifinals. Nobody was meant to beat Gonzaga, which they did to reach the championship game. And they weren’t meant to beat San Diego in the decider either. However, a journey led by Aussie trio Haylee Andrews, Alex Fowler, and Keeley Frawley saw the Pilots secure their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997, long before any of the three players were even born.
The journey started with a quarter-final against a Pacific side that had won on the previous day to secure their spot in the last eight. The Tigers’ coach may have referred to her by jersey number in a halftime interview, but Alex Fowler gave everyone 100% reason to remember her name as Portland secured the best kind of revenge in their tournament opener.
Pacific had defeated Portland twice in the regular season, but the third time was the charm for the Pilots, who edged to a 76-69 win. Fowler posted 27 points for the second time in three games, grabbing 8 rebounds just for good measure, and ensuring that Pacific’s coach wouldn’t forget her in short time. Andrews added 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists, whilst Frawley chipped in 5 points, 6 assists, and a single dime as the Pilots moved on to face…Gonzaga.
Gonzaga. Few would give Portland any chance of winning this game, but that would’ve been the case regardless of who Gonzaga’s opponents were. The Zags came into this game with a 28-2 record, with their only conference loss coming to Saint Mary’s. However, despite losing both regular season games to Gonzaga this season, Portland had been up by 20 in the first of their two meetings before letting victory slip through their fingers.
As Gonzaga opened up a 27-7 lead late in the first quarter, things didn’t look especially good for the Pilots. However having been up by 20 in a previous meeting, the team in purple already knew that they could hang long runs on the Zags. They’d just have to find a way to do it again.
Chipping away throughout the second quarter, the Pilots drew within four at halftime, which would prove to be larger than the margin for the majority of the second half.
With Andrews and Fowler chipping in points with regularity, and the rest of the Pilots providing outstanding support, an intense game wove to its final five minutes with Portland establishing a six-point advantage. Shortly after, WCC Player of the Year Jill Townsend fouled out. Surely this was Portland’s chance to extend their lead.
Not so fast. A 63-57 Portland lead became a 65-63 Gonzaga advantage with two minutes to play, but the Pilots still remained well and truly in the hunt. Then, something twigged. The Pilots’ Aussie trio decided that this was their time.
Andrews: layup. 65-65. Frawley: make, miss. 66-65, as a second Gonzaga player fouled out. The Zags responded, but when Fowler grabbed an offensive board with 25 seconds to play, the conference Freshman of the Year was fouled and made the walk down the floor. A perfect trip to the line put the Pilots ahead, but a basket from Gonzaga left Portland with 8 seconds to find a winner.
Andrews inbounded the ball to Fowler at the top of the arc, who immediately returned the ball to her fellow Townsville product. Andrews’ drive to the basket was well-defended, but her floater was even better - on her birthday no less! Gonzaga’s prayer as time expired was well off-target, leaving Portland to descend into a celebratory dogpile near half-court as they moved on to face San Diego in the championship game courtesy of a 70-69 victory.
Once again, Fowler dominated, posting 22 points and 9 rebounds. Andrews added 16 points and 3 rebounds, whilst Frawley grabbed 6 vital rebounds alongside a single point.
San Diego’s ability to flip the script had almost been on par with Portland’s this season, having been pegged to finish 8th but rolling to a 2nd place finish in the league standings.
The Toreros certainly adapted to the occasion the better of the two teams in the early stages, jumping out to an 8-0 lead as Portland failed to put the ball in the basket for the first four minutes. No matter, the Aussies would sort things out. Fowler opened the Pilots’ scoring before Andrews reeled off six consecutive points and Frawley added a converted and-one opportunity to leave Portland trailing 12-11 after a quarter.
Portland maintained their momentum and briefly owned a 10-point advantage in the second quarter, but it soon became apparent that no lead was safe. After all, these teams had done the impossible time and again this season; a four-possession deficit represented a mere bump compared to the mountains each had climbed on previous occasions. San Diego completed a 16-point turnaround to look assured of taking a lead into the locker room at halftime, but Fowler and Frawley combined for the final six points of the half to tie things at 43-43.
Yet another run of Australian scoring would follow in the third quarter as a consistent theme emerged throughout the contest. After Andrews assisted on a Maddie Mulheim three early in the term, for the next nine minutes, all of Portland’s scoring came at the hands of an Australian player. Unfortunately, San Diego outscored the trio 18-12, leaving the game tied with ten minutes to play.
Whereas Portland had held a slender lead for much of the fourth quarter against Gonzaga the previous day, on this occasion they found themselves trailing or level for a large portion of the final term. After an early flurry of points at both ends, the scoring slowed markedly before Andrews once again saved the Pilots’ season. Having split a pair at the line just 45 seconds prior, the sophomore took over out of a timeout with 16 seconds to play and the Pilots trailing 58-56. Driving to the basket, Andrews found herself trapped by defenders, but once again her touch was impeccable, sending the game to overtime with the final basket of regulation.
Overtime. Of course. It almost wouldn’t feel right if Portland did this the easy way.
With points almost impossible to come by at both ends, the result wasn’t going to be decided until the last couple of possessions at the earliest. Fowler and Andrews each split a pair at the line, and San Diego made them pay with a three to take the lead with 90 seconds to play. But, as any New South Welshman who watches State of Origin rugby league will begrudgingly tell you, if it’s close in the final couple of minutes and the Queenslander's decide they’re going to win, they’re going to win!
Andrews managed to scoop home the go-ahead basket, before a San Diego turnover and an Alex Fowler offensive rebound gave Portland possession with 17 seconds to play.
Then, potential disaster. Fowler’s pass to Andrews got away from the point guard, and with the last seconds running off the clock, a San Diego player stood at the three-point line with the ball in her hands and no Portland defender even close to contesting what would be the game-winning shot. Set. Fire. The entire population of Orleans Arena held its breath. Then, chaos. The ball bounced off the rim, leading to a scramble for the rebound, only for the final siren to sound as Portland booked their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a 64-63 victory, sparking delirious scenes from the team in purple.
Fowler rounded out the tournament with a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double alongside 3 blocks and an assist, securing tournament MVP honours in emphatic fashion. Andrews wasn’t far behind, posting 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists on her way to joining Fowler in the All-Tournament team. Meanwhile, Frawley added 7 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists as the freshman continues to cement her place as coach Michael Meek’s first option off the bench.
After reaching the tournament for four consecutive seasons from 1994 to 1997, it has taken 23 years for the Pilots to once again reach the big dance. How far they progress in this tournament remains to be seen, but having already knocked off a top-15 side in Gonzaga, nobody will be taking them lightly.
Currently, according to ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme, they are set to face #2 seed Stanford in the opening round as a #15 seed. Should they instead enter as a #16 seed, a match-up with #1 seed Oregon would likely follow in a game that would see six Aussies feature, with Jaz Shelley, Morgan Yaeger, and Lucy Cochrane on the Ducks’ roster. For now, they have just over a week to prepare for their first round contest, with the bracket to be revealed on Monday and the first round games to be played the following Friday and Saturday (US time).
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