Mar 15, 2015

Post NWAC women's tournament thoughts: Alison Crumb and the Pirates' chip

Peninsula gets the upset of the tournament over Umpqua.
I think, overall, my favorite moment from this year's NWAC tournament was my interaction with Peninsula head coach Alison Crumb in the moments after the Pirates celebrated the first NWAC title in program history.

Two other sportswriters and I cornered Crumb behind the curtain as the Clark and Edmonds men were warming up for their title game. Two of us introduced ourselves after Crumb paused to take off her "lucky boots," which she later told me would be staying near and dear for next season.

Crumb politely shook my hand as I told her my name, visibly exhausted, but didn't seem to make the connection to who I was until I went with the pen name which has become commonplace in the NWAC circle -- Joward.

"Oh, I know who you are," she said with a wry smile. "You're the one who said we weren't contenders."

At first I was a little taken aback by her statement, but as we continued to talk, I realized it was that same chip on her shoulder -- and one shared by her team -- that made the victory special. Given, Lane was out of their depth and injured, but the run made to the title game was nothing short of remarkable for Peninsula.

I don't think anybody outside of Port Angeles would have picked Peninsula over Umpqua in the semifinals. I certainly didn't. My bracket had been busted from day one when my No. 2 team, Walla Walla, fell to Clark in the first round 61-60, but I still held on to one sure reality: Umpqua was better than any team here, and they'd make a winner of me by rolling their way to a championship.

That is, until Peninsula strolled in and shot the lights out of the Toyota Center and blew past the mighty Riverhawks 84-70.

This might get under Crumb's skin, and that's not my intention, but I still have to think Umpqua was the best team there. The Riverhawks didn't match up with Peninsula well, especially when the Pirates started hitting shots from Pasco, and I think that's what probably did Lane in as well.

Both Lane and Umpqua are built to play inside out. Ashli Payne is a beast, and is impossible to guard. She's too fast to stick with on the perimeter, but too big and strong to contend with in the paint.

If not for the unbelievably clutch three-point shooting from Peninsula, I think we probably see a Lane-Umpqua final, which Umpqua probably wins -- another all-Southern Region NWAC title game.

But that's not the way it went down. Peninsula was better on those two days, which is the beauty of such a compact tournament format. It's almost a pity that the NWAC has decided to move on, opening the tournament up to bids and playing the first round on the home court of the higher seeds instead of a central location. The current format, I feel, gives a little more room for Cinderella teams -- not that Peninsula fits such a description, they were a No. 1 seed -- to make a run at things if they can get hot.

Teams like Peninsula, a team I had ranked seventh coming in and eventually beat my fifth ranked Lane Titans in the final, benefit from things like that. I actually mentioned the value of momentum in their final ranking, but shot myself in the foot by actually overlooking their hot streak.

That said, the Pirates are clearly better than the rest of the Northern Region -- at least on paper. There was a big gap between Peninsula and Bellevue this season, and the Pirates return a good number of players, including Imani Smith -- definitely one of the standout freshman at the tournament this year.

Maybe the title-formula is depth and an ability to peak at the right time. That's how Columbia Basin has done it over the years. The Hawks won with ferocious defense and a patient offense, switching out their players often to keep up the pace on the defensive end of the floor.

The best thing about that is it doesn't limit outer-lying teams from contention. Defense is as much about effort and energy as anything else, and defense doesn't require a laundry list of standout bigs.

Maybe -- just maybe -- the secret to winning a title isn't to emerge from the best region as the league's most battle-tested team. The East definitely isn't what it used to be. The south is still a madhouse, and had three teams in the semifinals, but we're starting to hear war-mongering in the Northern and Western regions as well. Centralia has been good for a number of years now, and Lower Columbia is turning into a strong program.

Peninsula already made their mark on history.

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