By Christian Bond, PLU Sports Information Student Writer
PARKLAND – After wrapping up the 2015-16 regular season third in the Northwest Conference standings, the Pacific Lutheran men's basketball team heads to Walla Walla this week to take on ninth-ranked Whitman in an NWC Tournament semifinal matchup Thursday at 7 p.m.
PLU heads into the matchup having split the regular season contests between the two teams, with each team winning on the road. The Lutes will look to repeat that feat this week, with a berth in Saturday's NWC Tournament final on the line.
"We need to control the tempo of the game with good transition defense and effective half court offense," PLU head coach Steve Dickerson said. "Rebounding, keeping them out of the lane and taking care of the ball will be the keys."
PLU closed out the regular season with several players ranking among the NWC statistical leaders. Brandon Lester ranks second among all scorers averaging 17.1 points per game. Lester also led the league in free throw percentage, shooting 85.6 percent at the line. Bryce Miller ranks second in rebounds, averaging 8.6 per game, while Jared Christy ranks fourth with an average of 7.9. Dylan Foreman's 3-point shooting percentage of 44.6 ranks second in the conference, and the as a team the Lutes lead the NWC in 3-point shooting (39.2 percent) and free throw shooting (74.8 percent).
In the first match up between the two teams, PLU upset Whitman 79-74 on the Missionaries' home court. Lester made six 3-pointers, leading to a 27-point performance. Foreman dropped 17 points while going 2-of-3 from 3-point range and making all five of his free throw attempts. Christy had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Miller added 10 points and eight rebounds. The Lutes gained separation with an outstanding night from long-range, shooting 52.4 percent (11-of-21) from deep. PLU also out-rebounded Whitman 45-to-32.
The second matchup between the teams came less than a week ago, Friday in Olson Gym. NWC leading scorer Tim Howell scored a game-high 29 points to lead Whitman to an 82-72 win. Miller scored 22 points and grabbed 5 rebounds to lead the Lutes, while Lester scored 16 points. Erik Swartout scored 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range, and dished out eight assists. An 11-point Whitman run midway through the second half helped the Missionaries build a double-digit lead the Lutes could not overcome. Thursday will be a chance for the two teams to play a deciding third game, as each squad looks to continue its season and strive for the automatic NCAA Tournament qualifier that goes to the NWC Tournament champion.
"It will take everyone, as each of our guys will have to give a 'championship effort' and just concentrate on doing what they do best," Dickerson said.
PLU finished the regular season with a 16-9 record, the team's most wins since the 1997-98 season. The winner of Thursday's game will face either third-ranked (and top-seeded) Whitworth or fourth-seeded Puget Sound Saturday for the NWC Championship. For the Lutes, the conference tournament berth is another step in one of the most successful seasons in recent memory and a result of a close-knit squad coming together.
"Their resilience, their practice habits, and their genuine concern for each other are special," Dickerson said. "They are really fun to watch."