LAS VEGAS — Orleans Arena was empty at 10:45 a.m. aside from a handful of staff members and television crew, but Cal State Bakersfield head coach Greg McCall could already see it. The fans in the stands, the trophy and — most importantly — the looks on his players’ faces.
“Get ready to celebrate,” McCall said Saturday morning. “You know it’s gonna be huge for them.”
Five hours later, all he had dreamt up happened for fourth-seeded Seattle, which beat No. 2 CSUB, 57-54, in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship game.
CSUB’s Malayasia McHenry could hardly walk after the game, covering her face with her hands. Jazmine Johnson tossed the ball — which had just airballed out of Aja Williams’ hands at half court on a game-tying 3-pointer attempt right after the buzzer — at the basket a few times. Johnson left the court arm-in-arm with redshirt senior Jazmyne Bartee and McCall.
In a historic season for the Roadrunners, CSUB fell one game short of its first Division I regular season conference championship and its first WAC Tournament championship. Seattle (18-14, 9-5 WAC) won for the first time after making the title game for the fourth time since 2013. Bakersfield (18-13, 10-4) came up two baskets short in its first WAC championship game appearance.
“I knew it was going to be an all-out war,” McCall said. “They came out on top. It was one of the type of games you wish that, probably from a coach’s perspective and a fan perspective, you just keep slugging it out until someone finally says, ‘I give up.’ But the clock. It’s one of those things where you have to play against time and time ran out.”
The Roadrunners could get an invitation to either the Women’s National Invitation Tournament or the Women’s Basketball Invitational. New Mexico State has the conference’s automatic bid to the WNIT and if CSUB plays in the WBI, it would likely host a game Wednesday.
Brackets for the respective tournament will be released Monday evening.
Down by eight points with three minutes left, CSUB went inside to freshman Vanessa Austin, who powered her way for a layup to ignite a 7-0 Runner run. Johnson made a free throw, McHenry spun for a score from the post and Johnson raced past her defender for a lefty layup that brought CSUB within one with 27 seconds left in the game.
After a pair of free throws for Seattle, the Roadrunners trailed 57-54 with 22 seconds to go.
McCall wanted a 3-pointer. Johnson airballed floater with contact. Following a Seattle timeout, CSUB forced the inbound pass out of bounds off a Redhawks player. The Roadrunners had the ball on the other end of the court with 3.5 seconds left but had no timeouts to setup a play. Williams didn’t get the shot off.
“I know Aja wanted to take the big shot at the end,” McCall said. “I was trying to setup the play for Alexxus Gilbert to come off of Vanessa’s back screen, which I thought would have freed her up even more. She would have a got a cleaner look, but Aja, you know they’re both hungry for trying to get that shot off at the end and it just fell short.”
CSUB shot just 34 percent from the field and was 3 for 15 from 3-point range in the game. The Roadrunners were 7 for 10 from the free throw line while Seattle was 18 or 19.
“(We have to) take care of business early,” Johnson said. “Just don’t leave it up to the officials’ hands.”
McCall thought Seattle got “bump calls” and Austin was getting “clobbered” in the post. Austin didn’t draw a foul on any of her seven shots. McCall proclaimed before the tournament began that Seattle was the most dangerous team.
The lead changed 19 times in the game and CSUB’s biggest lead was by four with 8:50 left in the fourth quarter.
Early in October, before the start of the regular season, McCall put the onus on himself and his team to achieve the only goal that mattered. It was the primary thought on his mind.
“It’s time for us to kind of get our shot at going to the Big Dance this year,” McCall said.
“When we get to the (WAC) Tournament, we got to win it. We got to win it,” he added a few minutes later.
“We just haven't gotten past that part of getting over the hump,” McCall noted. “That’s our ultimate goal is to try to get over the hump and get us to that next level of where we need to be.”
Five months later, CSUB came up one game short.