Chokers prep for NWAC tourney

Landmark accomplishments have been plentiful during the Grays Harbor College women’s basketball season.

Assembling a 22-game winning streak at one stage, the Choker women set a school record for victories, with 25. Last week, they became the first GHC women’s team to win a division championship.

But, when asked how many of those victories have been fashioned with 40 minutes of dominance, Choker coach Chad Allan didn’t hesitate.

“Two or three,” he responded.

Allan wasn’t being modest or overly critical. Even in the midst of this record-setting campaign, the Chokers have found that the task of putting together four consistent quarters to be surprisingly elusive.

That’s a trend they hope to rectify when they compete in the NWAC Tournament beginning Thursday at Everett. Grays Harbor (25-2) will open against Big Bend of Moses Lake (20-9) at 6 p.m. at the Everett Community College gym.

The 16-team single-elimination tourney will be spread out over 12 days. The first two rounds will be played Thursday and Friday. The NWAC men’s tournament will then open Saturday and Sunday at the same location. The Final Four teams for each gender will return to Everett for the semifinals and finals March 17-18.

Wednesday’s GHC-Big Bend winner will face either Clackamas or host Everett in the quarterfinals, scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday.

The Chokers specialized in slow starts early in the campaign. More recently, they’ve seen big early leads diminish before closing out opponents.

“We’re either a first-half team or a second-half team,” said sophomore guard Angela Sikora.

Allan views that trend as partly a function of the team’s short bench. The Chokers suit up only nine players.

While the Grays Harbor coach likes the energy his reserves — including Hoquiam grad Isabel Hernandez — bring to the court, the bulk of GHC’s scoring punch is provided by the starting five.

Sophomore forward Alexia Thrower is the NWAC’s leading scorer with a 26-point per game average. Sikora — second in the NWAC in 3-point field-goal percentage — averages 14.4 points and point guard Sandin Kidder 13.3. The other starters, Estelle Wilson and Katie Brisbois, also frequently hit double digits.

The ability to score points in bunches has enabled Grays Harbor to overcome occasional droughts. The Chokers rank third in the NWAC — and first among Washington schools — with an 82-point per game average.

“I think the main thing is their firepower — to be able to scoring 20-30 points per quarter,” Allan observed. “That gives you a little cushion.”

The Chokers also have enjoyed a level of familiarity unusual in the community college ranks, where the roster turnover rate is traditionally high.

They returned four starters (Thrower, Sikora, Wilson and Brisbois) from a team that went 13-14 and lost to Skagit Valley in the first round of the NWAC tourney last year.

All four, according to Allan, improved measurably this season.

The addition of Kidder, a 5-foot-11 freshman from Anchorage, Alaska, filled the team’s single void. Although an atypical point guard (at 5-foot-11, she is the team’s tallest starter), she has handled the position well.

The team’s comfort level also increased proportionally.

“We really just came together this year,” Sikora added.

“It was just a matter of our trusting each other,” Thrower added.

Thrower is Exhibit A regarding the team’s unselfishness. In addition to leading the conference in scoring, she is also 13th in assists with a team-high 4.2 points per game average.

“We have a lot of good ball movement this year,” she said.

Even prior to Sunday’s draw, Allan regarded Big Bend as the toughest of GHC’s three potential first-round opponents (the Chokers were guaranteed to play a fourth-place team from another division).

The Vikings are another high-scoring team, with five players averaging between 10 and 13 points per game. Allan isn’t ruling out the possibility of both teams cracking the 100-point mark in Thursday’s contest.

While the Choker roster is stocked heavily with players from Nevada, Big Bend has recruited primarily from Utah.

Miranda Johnson, a 5-8 freshman from Salt Lake, and point guard Sunnie Martinez from Layton are each averaging 13.3 points per contest. Martinez is fourth in the NWAC in 3-point field-goal percentage.

“They are a match-up problem with their well-balanced attack and perimeter shooting strength,” the Choker coach said. “That being said, we are also a mismatch for them. They will have to double-team Alexia to contain her, which will leave her teammates open.”

Grays Harbor’s key to tournament success, according to Allan, is to maintain its high-scoring pace.

“If we’re shooting over 40 percent, we’re winning,” the Grays Harbor College coach said. “If we’re under that, we struggle. The things we have to stay away from are foul trouble and turnovers.”

Stringing together four consistent quarters could also be critical.

“That’s going to be our main focus,” Thrower concluded.

Opening-round pairings:

8 a.m. — Centralia vs. Columbia Basin. 10 a.m. — Umpqua vs. Peninsula. Noon — Lower Columbia vs. North Idaho. 2 p.m. — Bellevue vs. Mount Hood.

4 p.m. — Everett vs. Clackamas. 6 p.m. — Grays Harbor vs. Big Bend. 8 p.m. — Walla Walla vs. Highline. 10 p.m. — Lane vs. Skagit Valley.