Andrews and the NCAA Tournament Bound Pilots

By Harley Johnson
The Portland Pilots capture the 2023 University Credit Union West Coast Conference Basketball Tournament Championship

March Madness has come to be a lot of things, but perhaps the greatest thing about it are its stories. Whether it’s the first time a program has made the field in its history, an undefeated school seeking perfection or an upset at the buzzer, nothing captivates the masses in the month of March quite like basketball.

The Portland Pilots are no different. They are a story that is the definition of collegiate basketball during March. So, to tell their story, it’s best to start at the beginning.

Portland prepares for the semifinals at the 2023 UCU WCC Basketball Tournament

Portland and Gonzaga entered their first matchup this season both undefeated (6-0) in Conference games. The Pilots put up a fight, then guard Haylee Andrews went down with a few minutes left in the game.

The Chiles Center went so silent, that it was loud, and time stood still. There was a palpable sense of sorrow even through the television screen. For those that know Portland, they know the story of losing Andrews a year prior to a torn ACL. It was only her eleventh game back and suddenly, she was being taken off the floor once again.

When play returned for the final moments of the game, it obviously had a different feel. The Pilots fell, 73-66, but that was nothing compared to losing a teammate, a leader, a friend. However, if there is one thing to know about Portland, it is that they knew exactly what to do, because unfortunately, they had been there before. 

“We ended up losing her, which was so heartbreaking to our team again,” guard Maisie Burnham shared. “We had to overcome that and pick each other up and pick Haylee up.”

A dream season for the Portland senior, stripped away in a moment. What was to become of the Pilots?

Guard Maisie Burnham

Portland finished 15-3 in the WCC, a program best, to earn the No. 2 seed in the University Credit Union WCC Basketball Tournament. The Pilots had previously won the WCC Basketball Tournament title in 2020. The illustrious dream of making the 68-team field for the NCAA Tournament had finally been secured for the first time since the late 90’s. 

But it all came to a screeching halt, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. Dreams of seeing their name on Selection Sunday were taken away in a moment. They went from feeling the highest of highs to suddenly seeing the postseason was over before it began.

“Not getting that chance, even thinking back to 2020, it would have been fun just to see a mock bracket to see our name,” Head Coach Michael Meek laughed.

Portland has carried that with them ever since. That extra sense of what could have been had the world been different is something the Pilots still think about from time to time, but it never kept them from believing in their ability to get back. Earning a triple bye in 2023, the Pilots were once again ready to rise to the occasion.

The Moment Sets in for the Pilots

They entered the semifinals, taking on No. 6 seed Pacific, who wasn’t shying away from the challenge. They were chasing their own history, so the Pilots had to dig in deep. Centered together to fight for their leader and friend, Portland willed themselves into the championship game. They defeated Pacific, 75-72.

Portland plays inspired because of Andrews. After celebrating the win over Pacific, the team led Andrews to the bracket board. The senior guard dressed in warmups enthusiastically slapped the Pilots’ name on the board on the championship line. Cheers and smiles radiating from the group, exemplifying the pure joy of winning in March.

“I do think from that point our team has been really inspired to play for her [Andrews] because everyone knows how much it matters to her, how much the team and program matters to her,” Meek shared. “There’s been a lot of drive and I think that speaks to how much our team respects her and care for one another”.

Burnham was in full agreement, adding, “We wanted her to have a piece of that because of how much she means to our team and our success. Haylee is a big part of that and it should not be forgotten.”

Haylee is a big part of that [Portland's success] and it should not be forgotten
Maisie Burnham
Haylee Andrews advances the Pilots on the bracket

Portland was set to face No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the final. The Pilots had gone 0-2 this season against the Bulldogs going into that Tuesday championship game and knew full well that it was win or go home. And the Pilots weren’t ready to go home. They were going to get Andrews and their seniors to the NCAA Tournament no matter what. “We knew it was going to be a battle,” Burnham pointed out.

“People could look at that game, you know, we were down 11 at half and we had previously lost two games to them,” Burnham explained, “I think people on the outside could have looked at us and thought we would fold over, but that was the opposite.” She continued, “We have always known that we have potential to be really good.”

So then what changed? Some words of wisdom from their teammate, Andrews. “Haylee had a conversation with each of us at half”, Burnham admitted, “reminding us that we need to do what we need, but also there’s 20 minutes left, this is supposed to be fun.” 

As the Pilots charged back in the second half, their offense flowing just like they all knew it would, Portland was moments away from reclaiming the UCU WCC Basketball Tournament title for the first time since 2020. “The last 30 seconds were nerve wracking, but it was that last jump ball with Emme. I think that's when we truly knew we won.” Andrews said.

Portland took down Gonzaga, 64-60, and the Pilots punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, as confetti rained down around them once more. 

We have always known that we have potential to be really good
Guard Maisie Burnham

“It is definitely surreal,” Andrews shared, “In 2020 it was a blur, since the Tournament got canceled.”  She continued, “We didn’t get to feel all the emotions that we get to feel now that we are in, and the senior class is excited we get to feel this now. It's amazing and what every college team works for.” 

With a conference tournament earlier than others, Portland waited in anticipation for Selection Sunday, eager to know where they would be. With an automatic qualifier bid, the Pilots were named the No. 12 seed and drew No. 5 seed Oklahoma in the first round.

“I have watched Selection Sunday for years now and it’s exciting to see teams celebrate, and to know that we got to do that this year is really amazing and I am very thankful for it,” Andrews reflected on their celebration.

Burnham added, “You don’t know if you ever get that opportunity. There are only 68 teams that make it and there are a lot of good teams out there.” She went on, “I was so thankful to be in that moment with my best friends, to be in a moment that we all dreamed about. It was a feeling you can’t describe, and I will remember it for the rest of my life.” 

“I am grateful and thankful that I have these girls. I couldn't be more proud of what they have done these past couple months. The way they figured things out after I went down again… They are playing for themselves and for me
Guard Haylee Andrews

A tight-knit group that made it their foundation to believe in one another has dedicated everything to a player that has come to mean everything to Portland. “I am grateful and thankful that I have these girls. I couldn't be more proud of what they have done these past couple months,” Andrews said. “The way they figured things out after I went down again… They are playing for themselves and for me,” Andrews admitted.

Next up for the Pilots is Oklahoma in Los Angeles. They’ve spent a lot of time in preparation, while reminding themselves to live in the moment.

“We are the underdogs. We always will be in this Tournament. We don’t know if we will play this game again and I think we will give it all we got,” shared Burnham.

“I know we have a tough opponent, but we earned the right to be here,” Meek added. 

And finally, a word of the wise from Andrews herself, “We have the ability to win these big games. We showed that in the Gonzaga game. If we put our minds to it we can be successful.”

Watch the Pilots take on the Sooners tonight in Los Angeles at 6:00 p.m. PT on ESPNU. 

Portland's NCAA Ticket is Punched
I know we have a tough opponent, but we earned the right to be here
Head Coach Michael Meek

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