Two wins from the GNAC title

As the clock ran down on her final regular season home game as a Falcon, senior Rachel Strand threw back her head and yelled triumphantly.

The buzzer sounded and the team huddled at midcourt. Someone said a few words, and the SPU women’s basketball team let out a loud cheer in unison.

They cheered for victory and for being a team.

The Falcons’ (18-7, 11-3) win over Western Washington University (17-9, 9-6) seemed almost an afterthought with Saturday’s senior night celebrations taking the spotlight.

But the 76-52 victory was "possibly one of the biggest wins we’ve ever had over Western," head coach Julie van Beek said.

The game all but eliminated Western Washington (WWU) from the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) title race and allowed SPU to maintain their one-game lead over Alaska Anchorage.

All eyes were not on the standings, but on the seniors as they were introduced and honored before the contest began.

Jessie Menkens hugged her family and accepted a goodbye basket from junior Jackie Hollands.

Rachel Strand blew a kiss to the crowd as they cheered her name.

And Autumn Fielding embraced her parents before singing along with the national anthem.

Then the Falcons buckled down and played defense against a Vikings team that averages the highest points per game in the GNAC, holding WWU to almost 19 points under their average.

Hollands took the helm on offense, scoring a career-high 22 points, 15 of them on five of six shooting from 3-point range.

Strand scored nine points and Menkens added six, while Fielding, hampered by an injury, was only able to play seven minutes.

Each of the departing seniors has left her stamp on SPU basketball, according to van Beek.

"The fun part with each girl is that she adds different things to the team," she said.

Fielding, van Beek said, is laid-back and easygoing off the floor, "an easy teammate."

"It was fun to see her step up into a leadership role," van Beek said. "She accepted the challenge of getting better and seeing her goal."

Strand leaves the legacy of her competitive fire behind.

"She has a deep desire to do things right," van Beek said of the forward from Shoreline. She described Strand as "super-consistent" and mentioned her GNAC-best 54.4 percent field-goal shooting.

"She has a strong sense of what SPU women’s basketball tradition is all about," van Beek said.

Menkens, van Beek said, is "a smart player" who improves teammates and rarely makes mistakes. The versatile 5-foot-10-inch senior can play both forward positions.

"She’s glue for our team," van Beek said, explaining that Menkens is the behind-the-scenes player that holds the team together.

Menkens called her SPU career — a two-year venture after transferring from University of the Pacific — "a complete gift from God."

After she left University of the Pacific, she said, "I thought I wouldn’t play again. I had no control over it."

Now she is going to have to leave her teammates behind, who have become like a second family. It is going to be hard not to have that support all the time, Menkens said.

That support was evident in the waning moments of Saturday’s game. With about two and a half minutes remaining, van Beek substituted out the three seniors to a standing ovation.

Menkens and Strand were hugged by teammates and coaches, then sat and laughed with the other girls on the bench.

Fielding became emotional — she had become injured and was unable to play many minutes — and cried into a towel while assistant coach Michelle Skyles comforted her.

"Autumn is such a trooper," Menkens said of her teammate.

As for herself, Menkens was glad she didn’t get emotional before the game, but is sad "to know that this chapter of our basketball careers is over."

But all three are looking forward to new chapters in their lives.

"It’s bittersweet," Menkens said.

Two days earlier, SPU took down the visiting Western Oregon Wolves on Thursday night in a lopsided victory, 92-48, in an empty Royal Brougham Pavilion.

Fans straggled in from the tailgating party outside while the Falcons dismantled the Wolves with distributed scoring. Seven players scored at least eight points and Hollands led the way with 19.

Van Beek continually called instructions on defense — "Hands up!" — and her Falcons spread their wings to knock the ball away.

Not only did SPU steal at every opportunity, garnering 22 picks, but they also took care of the ball: the Wolves were only able to make three steals the whole game.

The Falcons will take their defense and rekindled offense on the road for the final two games of the season, facing Northwest Nazarene in Idaho on Thursday, then returning to face rival Seattle University on Saturday in what could be a critical game with title implications.

If SPU wins out, the GNAC title belongs to them. But if the Falcons lose one and Alaska Anchorage wins two, SPU will surrender the conference title.

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Title: Two wins from the GNAC title | Author: August Williams | Section: Sports | Published Date: 2007-02-28 | Internal ID: 5474