By Christian Bond, PLU Sports Information Student Writer
WALLA WALLA – For the first time since 1998, the Pacific Lutheran men's basketball team will play for the Northwest Conference Championship after the Lutes downed ninth-ranked Whitman 82-68 in Thursday's semifinal matchup.
PLU improves to 17-9 overall this season and heads to Spokane for Saturday's NWC Tournament Final against regular season champion and third-ranked Whitworth. Tipoff for Saturday's championship game is set for 7 p.m., with the winner of the contest receiving the conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Div. III Tournament.
Brandon Lester shot an efficient 10-15 from the floor, including 3-of-5 from the beyond the 3-point line, and he made all six of his free-throw attempts to score a game-high 29 points. Dylan Foreman added 13 points, and Bryce Miller had nine points and 13 rebounds on the night. Jared Christy grabbed 10 rebounds, and freshman guard Tyson Birrer supplied 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting off the bench, with all 10 points coming in the first half to help the Lutes build a 12-point halftime lead. Andrew Ardissone was perfect from the field, making all three of his shot attempts as he scored nine points.
"Lester was fantastic," PLU head coach Steve Dickerson said. "It was a total team effort. Dylan did an excellent job shutting down one of their key guys. Guys like Ardissone, Birrer and Glenn all stepped up. Kyle Sawtell was out, and those guys answered the call. Bryce and Jared rebounded the heck out of the ball. Erik Swartout played well even though he was in foul trouble. People compliment this team because of the way that they play together. That is what we are proud of."
PLU scored the first seven points of the game and never looked back as the Lutes led wire to wire. The team combined to shoot 49.2 percent (29-of-59) from the field and 7-of-13 from deep, totaling 53.8 percent. PLU made 17 free throws on 28 attempts, and the Lutes got a big boost from their bench as Ardissone, Birrer and Markus Mitchell Glenn combined for 22 points.
PLU held Whitman to a 36.5 percent (27-of-74) shooting performance from the field. The PLU defense was even stingier from long-distance, as the Missionaries shot 21.7 percent (5-of-23) from 3-point range. The Missionaries' shootings woes continued at the free throw line, as they shot 52.9 percent (9-of-17) from the charity stripe. Tim Howell scored 24 points to lead the Missionaries, but the Lutes held him to 9-of-22 shooting in the game. PLU forced 12 turnovers and capitalized on them for 18 points.
"We did a couple little things different, and we challenged them," Dickerson said. "The kids have been up to the challenge all year long. We had to be better than we were against Whitman at home, and we were."
The win was PLU's second upset over Whitman on the road this season. Both times the Lutes held the high-scoring Missionary offense to 20 points below their scoring average. After PLU stretched its lead to 10 points on a Birrer jumper midway through the first half, Whitman never pulled closer than nine back the rest of the way. The Lutes led by as many as 18 points late in the second half.
Now the Lutes head to Spokane for their second rematch against a team they faced at home less than a week ago. PLU nearly upset third-ranked Whitworth Saturday in Parkland, as the Pirates held off the Lutes 73-71 in the regular season finale.
"Nobody is going to change anything; you don't have time," Dickerson said of the upcoming rematch against Whitworth. "Like always we have to defend and do what we do."