NCAA Women: Aussie stars light up the Big Sky

With the power conferences having completed their conference tournaments last weekend, the mid-majors took centre stage as the battle for a single bid in many leagues played out. With a number of Australians playing in the Big Sky, that was always one league that was a chance of sending an Aussie to the NCAA Tournament, and fans weren't disappointed. On the other side of the country, Buffalo secured the MAC Championship and an automatic bid of their own, with Courtney Wilkins playing a major role.

Senior Courtney West may have been perplexingly denied an All-Conference spot for the third successive season, but the senior had plenty of voters second-guessing themselves after helping lead Portland State to the Big Sky tournament title and into the NCAA Tournament. Coming in as the #4 seed, the Vikings broke open their quarter-final game against Montana State with a 20-9 third quarter to secure a 68-56 victory, with West among four Vikings in double figures. The Sutherland product shot 8 of 11 from the field on her way to 17 points, whilst also pulling down 8 rebounds and dishing out a couple of trademark blocks.

That win set up a semi-final against #1 seed Idaho, to whom the Vikings had fallen to twice already this season. But in the one that truly mattered, Portland State dominated after halftime once again, turning a four-point halftime lead into a 75-59 victory and a spot in the conference championship game against Jess McDowell-White and Eastern Washington. West tallied another 8 points on 4 of 7 shooting, but formed a dominant presence on the glass to finish with a game-high 11 boards.

The Vikings came in as favourites against the #6 seeded Eagles, but found themselves in a five-point hole heading into the final quarter of a back-and-forth game. A 6-0 run late in the piece gave Portland State a lead inside the final two minutes, but McDowell-White’s lay-up took her personal tally to 14 points and tied the game with 20 seconds remaining. But with four seconds to play, it would be Portland State who found the bottom of the net last, with a jumper from local star Desirae Hansen securing the victory and sending the Portland State faithful into raptures. West once again proved integral to the Vikings’ victory, registering 11 points and 7 rebounds as well as 4 blocks as Portland State once again finished with 4 players in double figures.

Jess McDowell-White and Eastern Washington may have come up agonisingly short in that championship game, but the freshman was named to the All-Tournament team following a quartet of outstanding performances that led the Eagles to a title shot that, on paper, they appeared to have little chance of securing. Opening up against #11 seed Weber State, McDowell-White buried 5 of 6 from beyond the arc on her way to 19 points and 5 assists, helping the Eagles avoid the upset loss as a 33-20 final term dragged Eastern Washington to an 81-74 victory and a matchup with #3 seed Idaho State. Once again, the Eagles had to battle back from a significant deficit as they fell 15 behind late in the third quarter before somehow forcing overtime courtesy of a pair of clutch free throws from McDowell-White as they managed to eke out a 67-65 win in the extra five minutes. Aside from that clutch moment, the freshman tallied 11 points, 4 assists, and 3 steals, whilst fellow Aussie Brittany Klaman added 5 points in her 18 minutes on court.

In the semi-final against Northern Colorado, the Eagles fell in an early hole but gradually chipped away at a 13-point Bears lead to see the deficit sit at a single point with 7 seconds to play and McDowell-White inbounding the ball under Eastern Washington’s own offensive basket. In one of the most audacious plays imaginable given the magnitude of the moment, the freshman inbounded the ball off a defender who had their back to the ball, picked it up, made the shot, AND drew the foul for and-one, which she promptly converted to give her team a 59-57 lead. Northern Colorado would have a chance at one last shot, but a steal from Klaman as time expired prevented any opportunity for a game-winner, sending the Eagles into the aforementioned championship game against Portland State.

The Big Sky wasn’t the only conference out west that saw Aussies making their mark. Newcastle product Megan Johnson and UTRGV entered the WAC Tournament as the #2 seed, but were pushed all the way against a resurgent Seattle side featuring in-form Aussie freshman Courtney Murphy. Murphy finished with 9 points and 5 rebounds for the Redhawks, who actually had a chance to win the game on the final possession, but couldn’t find the bottom of the net as UTRGV escaped with a 56-54 victory, with Johnson adding 6 points and 3 rebounds.

The Vaqueros managed a slightly more comfortable 69-58 victory over Cal State Bakersfield in the semi-finals, but still required a 22-12 final term to pull away in the final stages. Johnson was far more impactful, tallying 12 points and 7 rebounds as the win, combined with #1 seed New Mexico State’s victory in the other semi-final, ensured that the final would be a #1 v #2 matchup. What transpired was one of the most memorable games of Champ Week as a game that swung like a pendulum throughout eventually went to overtime as New Mexico State erased a five-point deficit in the final quarter to tie things at 58-58. An extra five minutes still couldn’t separate the sides, and after a 23-point second overtime period, it was New Mexico State who proved more composed at the line to secure a 76-73 victory. However, Johnson was once again solid, registering 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in a mammoth 44-minute night.

Buffalo were all but assured of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but Courtney Wilkins helped ensure that the Bulls secured the MAC’s automatic bid with a standout performance off the bench in their 77-61 championship game victory over Ohio. Wilkins had played a minor role in the first two rounds, scoring a total of just 7 points across the team’s two victories earlier week. However, the senior put that behind her to bury a trio of first-half threes that helped Buffalo establish a 43-28 lead that they never looked like relinquishing. Wilkins then followed up with her fourth make from beyond the arc late in the game to finish as one of four Bulls in double-figures with 12 points as Buffalo looks to repeat, if not improve on, last year’s trip to the Sweet 16.

St. Francis had played two nail-biters against Mount St. Mary’s in the regular season, and coming into their Northeast Conference Tournament contest, the season series stood at one apiece. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the Terriers’ Australian pair, it would be Mount St. Mary’s who took the rubber match 80-74, ending St. Francis’ season in the process. Despite the loss, Amy O’Neill finished the season dishing out another 10 assists alongside 4 points and 6 rebounds, whilst Jade Johnson notched 20 points to give the Terriers a fighting chance whilst also securing the program's single-season scoring record. But despite coming within two points in the final minute, St. Francis couldn’t quite find that extra basket to tip the scales in their favour, leaving Mount St. Mary’s to escape with the victory.