Tia Briggs stepped to the line for a pair of free throws. The Saint Martin’s University student section, located behind the basket, was prepared for the Western Washington University freshman.
Moments before Briggs released the ball, the students, clad in a variety of costumes, broke into a giant pillow fight.
Creative, but ineffective. Briggs, a Wilson High School graduate, sank both free throws.
Nothing seemed to break the Vikings’ focus, not even a big second-half Saints surge, which turned a potential blowout into a tight contest as Western posted an 81-71 victory against Saint Martin’s in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference women’s basketball tournament semifinals Friday at Marcus Pavilion.
The second-seeded Vikings (18-9) return to the conference championship game for a fourth consecutive season and look to defend last year’s crown. Western cruised past Simon Fraser in last year’s championship game and eventually reached the NCAA Division II national tournament’s Elite Eight.
The two teams meet again at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Sixth-seeded Saint Martin’s, playing in its first GNAC tournament, saw its season end with an 18-11 record.
“Getting to this point was big for us,” Saint Martin’s coach Tim Healy said. “I’m very proud of this team and what they accomplished. We have a lot of players back. They saw how much work you have to put in to get here.
“I hope this is motivation for them to put in the work next season so we can build off this.”
Katie Colard, a graduate of Elma High School, led the way for Western , scoring a game-high 23 points.
Sydney Donaldson (17 points), Jenni White (15) and Taylor Peacocke (10) also scored in double figures for the Vikings, who won all three meetings against the Saints this season.
SMU senior Chelsea Haskey, a graduate of Black Hills High School, scored 17 points, while teammate Megan Wiedeman added 17 points to go with 15 rebounds. She set a single-game GNAC tournament record with 17 rebounds in Saint Martin’s quarterfinal win against Alaska Anchorage.
She and Haskey helped the Saints overcome a 15-point halftime deficit to pull within two points with 141/2 minutes left in the game.
“We just told them to play possession to possession,” Healy said about his team’s second-half rally. “The kids came out and had a gutsy effort. I was very pleased with how we played. We just came out too soft in the first half. We didn’t play with any aggression, and we got down early.”
The Saints bolted out of the gates to start the second half, reeling off a 13-2 run.
A Haskey field goal made it 48-46, Vikings. It would be the closest SMU would get.
The Saints were able to trim the deficit to 72-67 with under two minutes remaining, but a 7-for-8 effort from the free-throw line down the stretch sealed it for Western Washington.
“We missed some layups,” said Healy, whose team shot 38.3 percent (23-for-60), “but the big difference is we didn’t make any 3s. We were looking for that big shot to put us over, and it never came.”
SMU missed 12 of the 14 shots it attempted from beyond the 3-point arc.
The Saints, brilliant on defense against Alaska Anchorage on Wednesday when they surrendered just 48 points, almost gave up that much in the first half against the Vikings as they headed into the locker room down 44-29.
The deficit was a combination of poor shooting in the paint on Saint Martin’s part — the squad missed numerous shots within a couple feet of the basket — and a solid first-half shooting performance from Western, which shot almost 60 percent for the half, hitting 18 of 31 attempts.
Colard did the most damage as she got off to a quick start, getting a layup off the tip four seconds into the contest, and didn’t let up from there. She scored 13 points in the first half, nine from 3-point range.
The Vikings posted their largest lead at 42-27 with 2:18 left in the half.
Brooke Paulson and Angela Gelhar each scored 10 points for Saint Martin’s.
Simon Fraser 85, Montana State-Billings 74: Erin Chambers, the GNAC’s leading scorer during the regular season, scored a game-high 22 points as the fourth-seeded Clan upset the top-seeded Yellowjackets to advance to their second consecutive conference title game.
Simon Fraser will take a 19-8 record into its finals rematch with Western. Montana State-Billings, the top-ranked team in the Division II West Regional, dropped to 23-7.