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Riverhawks make final push toward playoffs

NWAC tournament outlook forcasts both Umpqua teams in attendance

Dustin Barneburg/ Mainstream
Anna Mumm attempts a jumper while Ashli Payne boxes out a Clackamas defender. Jasmyne Davis looks on as UCC defeated the Cougars, 71-48.

Some say that March comes in like a lion. With the way Umpqua’s men’s and women’s basketball teams are playing, it may be a bit more like a Riverhawk.

On the horizon, both teams can see the Northwest Athletic Conference championships staring them in the face. The Umpqua women’s team sits perched atop the NWAC as the No. 1 ranked team.

Four conferences and 31 teams are waking up tomorrow dreaming of being in the position that the UCC (22-2 overall, 9-0 league) resides in. Riding a 12 game winning streak, the 2013-14 NWAC runner-up Riverhawks have already wrapped up the south region title.

Umpqua may be as prepared for a championship run as any team could hope for heading into tournament play. Battle tested, the ’Hawks have dropped victories on the league’s top teams.

For Christmas the women’s team brought home a first place trophy from the Bellevue Classic. They rang in the New Year winning the Skagit Valley Crossover and haven’t lost a game versus an NWAC opponent since Nov. 29.

They defeated league rival No. 7 Lane twice heading into their Feb. 11 road match-up in Eugene.

“It’s going to be a competitive game,” sophomore Breannie Robinson said in a Feb. 7 interview. “They’re (Lane) going to be ready for us, and we’re going to be ready for them.”

How right she was. The Riverhawks won in dramatic fashion, 65-63, on a full-court pass that led to a  Sawyer Kluge lay-in with 4.3 seconds remaining on the clock, defeating the Titans for the fourth straight time dating back to 2013-14 season.

Lane aside, neutral court victories over defending NWAC champion Columbia Basin (No. 6), Lower Columbia (No. 4) and Bellevue (No. 5), give UCC the kind of playoff resume most teams strive for.

“We really set a goal after last season to make it back to championships and get back to that game,” Marcy Ortiz said in a Nov. 27 interview. “Everything we have done from last spring through summer, and up until now, was all with that goal in mind.”

As a whole, the team appears on pace to fulfill its team goals. Their success, however, is not just illustrated by the Riverhawks’ No. 1 ranking and overall record. The Umpqua women are led by a starting five whose names litter the leader boards of the NWAC’s most important statistical categories.

Arguably the NWAC’s best player, UCC’s Ashli Payne ranks in the top-20 in five separate categories. Payne’s averages of 16.83 ppg (eighth), 9.33 rebounds (fifth), 4.17 assists (ninth), 2.13 steals (twentieth) and an 80 percent free throw percentage (fifteenth), provides an on-court foundation for all others to follow.

Starting point guard Romanalyn Inocencio ranks second in assists per game (5.38) while guard Sawyer Kluge is one of the top scoring freshmen throughout the NWAC (15.58 ppg, fifteenth). Forward Breannie Robinson leads the league in field goal percentage (62.3 percent), and forward Anna Mumm ranks third in blocks per game (2.17) and thirteenth in rebounding (7.96). Her 52 blocks on the season are two away from tying assistant coach Linda Stricklin’s all-time single season block record of 54.

Historically, finishing well in the NWAC south region leads to success in the NWAC tournament come March for both women and men’s teams. Match-ups aside, UCC’s women have a legitimate shot at bringing home the title. They have to be considered the favorite, but anything can happen when trying to win four games against four quality opponents in four days.

In the past six seasons, NWAC south region women and men’s teams have combined for six of twelve championships. It’s been a number of years since both men’s and women’s teams qualified in the same season.

“I don’t know if both teams have ever qualified for the tournament in the same season in the 20 years I’ve been coaching¬† here,” head coach Dave Stricklin said in a November interview. “If both teams do make it, the athletic department might have to hold a bake sale to get us there.”

Someone better notify athletic director Cheryl Yoder, because it might be time to start baking. If the playoffs started today, both teams would in fact be on their way to Kennewick, Washington for the right to play for an NWAC title.

UCC men’s team is currently in the fourth and final playoff spot in the south region and may be playing its best basketball in the final weeks of the season despite suffering a heartbreaking road loss in overtime, 105-97, to No. 4 ranked Chemeketa on Valentine’s Day.

The Riverhawks still have their playoff destiny in their own hands. With three games remaining on the season, two of them will be played against teams with losing records. Their final regular season game is at home, giving the ’Hawks a decided advantage over fifth place Portland, whom UCC has beaten twice.

If hearing it from me will make you sleep better at night, then here is my prediction: Umpqua’s men’s team will make the playoffs. Death, taxes and Riverhawks men’s team in the 2015 NWAC tournament. Once they’re in, the ’Hawks (14-10 overall, 5-5 south) are looking at the prospect of facing Bellevue (23-2, 10-0) or Edmonds (20-5, 8-2) out of the north, the top-two ranked teams in the NWAC.

The Riverhawks will rely heavily on a balanced attack. All five starters average double figures in points and are anchored in the middle by one of only three NWAC players to average a double-double on the season, 6’7’’ Jordan Madrid-Andrews. Madrid-Andrews (11.25 ppg., 10.13 rebs, 1.25 blks), is third overall in the NWAC in rebounding and seventh in block shots.

Guards Mikko Balmes (13.74 ppg.), Charles Porter (13.13 ppg.) and Joe Baldi (12.04 ppg.) will need to share the scoring load while continuing to get consistent play out of Titus Rice (11.92 ppg., 5.92 rebs.) if they’re going to compete with the likes of Bellevue and Edmonds.

“We need to keep getting better at finishing plays, as in not letting teams get second or third chances,” Baldi said, “also, getting tougher and executing our offense.”

Don’t for one second think this team lacks what it takes to make a tournament run. These Riverhawks compete every night. Daniel Leeworthy and his staff will have the team ready.

“I think we have matured and gained valuable experience throughout the season,” Leeworthy said. “We have a very young team, and we have preached from the very start to get one percent better every day, and we have done that to a high level. We’ve been unselfish and played as a team.”

Regardless of what happens once they get there, Riverhawk fans can bank on the fact they’ll have the opportunity to root for both the men and women’s basketball team’s and their quest for a 2014-15 NWAC title. In the meantime, let’s get ready for that bake sale.